‘In the Dark’ investigators talk season 2 and racial bias in the criminal justice system
The first season of American Public Media’s podcast In the Dark focused on the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, a case that in part led to the founding of a national sex offender database. Released in 2016, the Peabody Award-winning series focused on how elected sheriffs are often not held accountable for failing to do their jobs, how small towns will convict people in the court of public opinion and how parents grieve when they’ve lost their son. The podcast also was especially timely: Just before it was originally set to premiere, Jacob’s murder was solved and his killer confessed.
Season two, which premiered on Tuesday, tells a story that’s similar in many instances but also, in other ways, completely different. The podcast is now examining the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man on death row, convicted of a 1996 quadruple homicide in a furniture store in the small town of Winona, Mississippi.
What’s unique about Curtis’ case is that he’s been tried six times for the same case. His first two convictions were overturned because of “prosecutorial misconduct,” according to Rolling Stone, and the third was overturned because of racial bias in jury selection. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Flowers’ fourth trial resulted in a mistrial and his fifth ended because of a hung jury. In 2010, he was tried for the sixth time, and sentenced to death by the 12 jurors — 11 white, one black, in a county where about 45% of residents are black.
The In the Dark team got a tip about the story after season one, and six of them moved to Winona to investigate it for a year. They became part of the community, pored over thousands of pages of court documents and knocked on countless doors to ask locals difficult, uncomfortable questions about a case that’s divided the town for more than two decades.
With the new season out, we got on the phone with In the Dark host Madeleine Baran and producer and reporter Samara Freemark (who are still recording and editing the series) to talk about the case, repeating the success of season one, moving to Mississippi to report on a story for so long and why the story of Curtis Flowers matters in a much broader way.
To start off, what can you tell me about how the initial tip came in and what made you decide to pursue this story?
Samara Freemark: We had put out a call for tips and story ideas at the end of last season when we got hundreds, maybe thousands, of ideas from people on the web. We went through all of them and this one woman in Mississippi sent us a note about this case about this man, Curtis Flowers. As soon as we read the email, we were really intrigued by it and the fact that he had been tried six times for the same crime was something we could not understand, so we started looking into the case from there.
Madeleine Baran: Yeah, and it was a really simple email. And yet it really was just the question: “How could this happen? How can someone be tried six times for the same crime?”
Were there any similarities to the Wetterling case you saw that stood out to you, like the inability of the justice system or local police?
SF: The stories themselves are very different from each other but in both cases it’s very important we work on an accountability element. There are people in power who may be doing things that don’t seem right. In both cases, it felt like there were these larger issues of responsibility and accountability.
MB: Those issues extend beyond the high-stakes situation of the individual story we’re telling. In season two, it’s a story about the case of Curtis Flowers, but also a story that raises questions about flaws in our justice system. It will talk about the power of a prosecutor, the power of one man to try someone six times.
Being recognized around town probably helped build a level of trust.
MB: Yeah, and the other reality of this is that if you’re reporting in a small town, everyone knows everyone, more or less. If you go to report in Chicago and you’re looking for someone, you can probably find them but there’s no guarantee you’re going to. When you’re reporting in Winona, you might have to knock on 10 houses but you’re going to find the person. A common experience for us was we would set out to find one person and then we would end up talking to three people we intended to talk to, just by chance.
How difficult was it for you to do this without being able to talk to Curtis because his courts ruled against it and his lawyers said not to?
MB: Of course, we wish we could talk to him but our inability only made us want to report this story more. Because he is being cut off from reporters in prison, that would never be a situation where we would say, “Then we’re not going to do the story.”
That fact alone makes us even more interested in this story because when you think about accountability in the criminal justice system, Curtis Flowers cannot — regardless of whether people think he’s innocent or guilty — have that conversation with a reporter to look at the issues in this case. I hope the Mississippi Department of Corrections will change its mind.
With regard to his parents, you interviewed the Wetterlings at length for season one. What was it like to interview another family in grief about their son for such a different reason?
SF: There are a lot of parallels even though the stories are so different. In both cases, it was the parents who had been dealing with this thing for decades. And in both cases they felt like they wanted to share their story because they felt it was so important.
MB: I would stop by their house every few days for the greater part of the year. It’s hard to imagine what this would be like. It would be one thing to have someone in your family be convicted of a crime and go to prison — and if you believe that person was innocent that would be horrible.
Like in the Wetterling case, there was a local court of public opinion. What parallels do you see there?
SF: In both situations, we’ve got small towns where everyone knows each other. Every time the Flowers family goes anywhere, they’re surrounded by people who know about their son’s case and they have different feelings about their son.
MB: They’re surrounded by the people who testified against Curtis. In a small town, they’re surrounded by jurors, and jurors are surrounded by people affected by the case.
It’s interesting to think about a trial that happens in a small town where your chances of knowing someone involved in that case are extremely high. If you struck every juror who knew someone involved in the case, you probably couldn’t have enough jurors to seat for a trial. It’s been interesting to talk to the jurors about that. Samara has done more of that than me.
SF: There were a lot of them. Twelve jurors plus two alternates for six trials.
MB: How long do you think you spent trying to talk to jurors?
SF: Days. Well, there are six times 14, whatever that makes. So, many people.
MB: The other issue was the passage of time. We’re trying to go back to not just the last trial but the first trial and trying to find people who testified early on, people we’re not sure they’re alive anymore.
But yeah, I’m so looking forward to this being out in the world because I hope that it calls attention to Curtis’ case. I hope that people care about this case and the role of race in the criminal justice system, which is a big part of the podcast as well. We’re not interested in doing a “whodunit.” This case has, at the heart of it, some very serious questions about prosecutorial misconduct and about the role of race in the criminal justice system that are critical issues right now in this country.
Obviously, you can’t say how the podcast ends because you’re still recording it. But what are the odds that Curtis will end up getting released midway through recording it and you have to rewrite all of this on the fly, just like you had to do with Jacob Wetterling’s killer confessing as you were taping season one?
MB: Who knows? Of course, with the Wetterling case, the most important thing is that was good news — they solved the case. In this case, I have no idea. I think that this case is really a question more of what do people make of our findings? What do people think should be done as a result of it? What actually is the next step in this case? What does the public think should happen? There’s certainly nothing coming around the bend next week with this case that we’re aware of — but then again that was true last time. I don’t know.