Curtis Flowers Defense Team Receives Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award

UM Law’s Innocence Project has represented Flowers since 2015

This week, the Southern Center for Human Rights awarded the Curtis Flowers defense team, which includes the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi, the 2020 Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award.

This past September, more than 23 years since after his arrest subsequent conviction and death sentence, the charges against Flowers were dismissed. Flowers was tried six times for the 1996 murder of four people in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. Each of the convictions and deaths sentences in the first three trials was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct, including racial discrimination by the prosecutor in jury selection in the third trial. The fourth and fifth trials ended in hung juries. The conviction and death sentence in the sixth trial also was overturned, this time by the United States Supreme Court in June of 2019. Flowers was released from prison in December 2019, awaiting a seventh trial. On Friday, Sept. 4, the state of Mississippi dismissed all charges against Flowers.

The case garnered national attention as evidence of Flowers’s innocence emerged in recent years, brought to light by the legal team that includes Hogan Lovells law firm, the George C. Cochran Innocence Project, and the Cornell Law School Capital Punishment Clinic. The case was also the subject of the award-winning, investigative reporting podcast series, In the Dark by American Public Media.

Tucker Carrington, UM Law Associate Dean for Clinical Programs and Innocence Project Director, has been part of the Flowers defense team since the post-conviction phase in 2015.

“Mr. Flowers’ persecution was shameful but, in the end, not without a silver lining. His name is now on a U.S. Supreme Court case, and that stands for something,” Carrington said. “That something is fortitude, and strength, and courage, and ultimately it stands for the right and decent thing – the rule of law.”

Sara Tonochi, executive director of the SCHR, said the Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award recognizes and celebrates individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the enhancement of human rights in the justice system. Previous honorees include Congressman John Lewis, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson.

“The Southern Center for Human Rights is thrilled to honor Curtis Flowers’s Defense Team with our 2020 Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award,” Tonochi said. “With this award, SCHR honors their bold advocacy; unshakable commitment to speaking truth to power; and the palpable compassion that they express for those whom society would discard.

“This Award recognizes the awe-inspiring and instructive way the team combined its immense talents for a multi-pronged approach to save Mr. Flowers’s life and expose the rampant injustice in his case,” she added. “As did the great Frederick Douglass, this extraordinary team strives to protect and promote human rights and ‘agitate…agitate…agitate’ on behalf of the disenfranchised and oppressed, and we are proud to pay tribute to their remarkable work.”

The award was presented virtually at the 24th Annual Frederick Douglass Awards ceremony, which featured remarks from members of the defense team and from Flowers.

“I had some dark days – the day I was arrested and the days I was convicted for a crime I did not commit. But there have been some bright days, too,” Flowers said in a video message. “I will never forget the day the judge granted bail and I walked out of jail. I will never forget the day, some months later, when my lawyers told me and my family that the charges had been dropped, and I was truly a free man again.”

Flowers also had a message for those who are fighting for justice and lawyers fighting for them – to keep the faith and keep fighting.

“It may be a long one, but there is hope in justice,” Flowers said.