Curtis Flowers has been on death row for 22 years. Earlier today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Flowers, striking down a death sentence for a man who’s been prosecuted six times for the same crime, and by a prosecutor with a history of racial bias.
The case for Flowers, who has maintained his innocence, is full of circumstantial evidence, questionable police work, and, as the Supreme Court suggested in their 7-2 decision, racial discrimination.
Flowers’ case was featured in two episodes of “Wrong Man,” a crime docuseries on Starz that is produced by RadicalMedia, that investigates the criminal convictions of individuals who have maintained their innocence. IndieWire spoke to series creator Joe Berlinger about Friday’s Supreme Court announcement, Flowers’ case, and the importance of social justice and activism.
“Today’s news was gratifying for me because I spend a lot of my filmmaking and personal time deeply involved in wrongful convictions and advocating for the wrongly convicted,” Berlinger said. “I do think we were part of a handful of the media telling the truth about this case, but it’s a stretch to say our television series directly led to this result.”
Berlinger has spent much of his career documenting difficult cases where defendants have maintained their innocence. Flowers’ case very much fits the bill: The African American man has been tried six times for a quadruple murder at a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. The two Flowers-focused episodes of “Wrong Man” do a deep-dive into the case, outlining the various issues with the prosecution’s case, flimsy evidence, and thinly-veiled issues of racism in the town.
The Mississippi town’s culture of fear is evident throughout the two “Wrong Man” episodes focused on Flowers. Several of the town’s residents declined to be interviewed on camera or have their faces shown. In one instance, an interview with an African American resident is interrupted twice, once by a white man and once by another African American woman. The white man berates and swears at the interviewee, while the African American woman — implied to be the interviewee’s daughter — shouts that someone could come and do something to the interviewee for agreeing to speak on the record.
Of particular note to Berlinger is Doug Evans, the Mississippi prosecutor who has spent over two decades trying to prosecute Flowers. Evans has barred 41 of 42 potential African American jurors from Flowers’ trials, despite Winona having a majority black population. That issue was echoed by the Supreme Court in their Friday decision.
“The State’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in the Supreme Court decision.
Berlinger’s interest in documenting criminal cases where the defendant maintains his or her innocence stemmed from his “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy, which chronicled the infamous West Memphis Three case in the ‘90s. That case concerned Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were accused of murdering and sexually mutilating three prepubescent boys in a satanic ritual. The latter two were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while Echols was placed on death row.
“Paradise Lost,” now regarded as a landmark in the documentary genre, generated significant media and celebrity attention and has been credited for the three being released from prison over 18 years later.
“Had ‘Paradise Lost’ not been made, Damien would have been put to death,” Berlinger said. “That was my wakeup call and it hit me that filmmaking could be used not just for aesthetic reasons but also to shine a light on societal problems. It’s become my life’s mission.”
Although Friday’s Supreme Court decision is cause for celebration, Berlinger cautioned people to avoid taking false comfort in the announcement. Berlinger expects that Evans will continue to try Flowers and said mass public advocacy could make the difference in extreme cases such as this.
“If people really care about the Curtis Flowers case they shouldn’t assume that because the Supreme Court made the right decision today that the case is over,” Berlinger said. “Pay attention to the case and do not let the injustice continue. It’s insane that Flowers is maybe facing a seventh trial. Being tried for the seventh time is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.”
Berlinger and his team are currently filming Season 2 of “Wrong Man.” Berlinger said it would likely premiere in either late 2019 or early next year.