Odell Hallmon, the state's key witness in the Curtis Flowers case, is serving three consecutive life sentences. We wondered what he might say now that there are no deals to cut, and he will spend the rest of his days in prison. Would he stick to his story that Flowers had confessed to the Tardy Furniture murders? We wrote him letters and sent him a friend request on Facebook. Weeks went by and we heard nothing. And then, one day, he wrote back.
May 29, 2018
There are two reasons why Odell Hallmon's testimony was so essential to the state's case against Curtis Flowers.
The first is that Hallmon's statement — that Curtis Flowers confessed to him in prison — was the singular piece of direct evidence the prosecution had. Everything else was circumstantial, from the people who said they saw Flowers walking through Winona on the morning of the Tardy Furniture murders to the bullets investigators pried out of a stump at Doyle Simpson's mother's house and matched to bullets found at the scene.
The difference between direct and circumstantial evidence is a formal one. Direct evidence can prove a fact on its own. Circumstantial evidence is one step removed. If you see drops of water falling from the sky, you know that it's raining. If you see a person come inside dripping wet, you can deduce that it's raining. But there are also other possibilities: Maybe the person is drenched in sweat or just fell in a swimming pool.
Put another way, in a purely circumstantial case, all the evidence could be true and still might not point to the defendant's guilt to the exclusion of all other possible explanations. Maybe you believe all the witnesses Doug Evans put on the stand who said they saw Flowers walking. But that only proves that Flowers took a long stroll around town on the morning of July 16, 1996. Maybe you believe that Simpson's gun was the murder weapon, but that doesn't prove that Flowers ever stole it or used it himself.
A circumstantial case isn't always weaker than one with direct evidence. "There's the quality of the evidence and there's the quantity of the evidence," said Eve Primus, professor of evidence and criminal procedure at the University of Michigan Law School. "The direct versus circumstantial speaks only to the quality, it doesn't speak to the quantity." An abundance of circumstantial evidence can strongly indicate guilt if it's impossible to explain in any other way.
If forty people walk into your office, and they're all wearing galoshes and carrying umbrellas and are soaking wet, it's almost certainly raining outside, for instance. Still, the state would almost always prefer to be armed with a piece of direct evidence.
Cases based on circumstantial evidence come with certain legal safeguards. Appeals courts consider trial errors more harmful in a circumstantial context. And during trial, if the state's case is wholly circumstantial, the jury can be given special instructions about its potential shortcomings. In Mississippi, a judge will say, "If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the circumstantial evidence, and one of those reasonable conclusions points to innocence and another one to guilt, then you must accept the one that points to innocence."
"Part of why the defense wants [this instruction] is because it plays into something that is in line with the common sense of jurors," Primus said. "It says, 'You can look with more skepticism at circumstantial evidence.'"
In the Flowers case, Hallmon's testimony helped the prosecution sidestep such skepticism.
When a person goes to prison, it's usually expected that he'll be cut off from the outside world. But that hasn't been the case for Odell Hallmon, who's been sitting in his Parchman cell using a smartphone to make calls, post messages on Facebook, send friend requests to relatives of his victims and Facetime with reporters.
While monitoring his Facebook page, the In the Dark team didn't see any evidence that Hallmon was using his cellphone to orchestrate serious illegal activity from behind bars, but prisoners have been known to do just that. Last year, for instance, one particularly industrious inmate in South Carolina reportedly used a cellphone to order a pair of wirecutters that was dropped off by a drone. He then used them to cut through four fences and escape.
Hallmon has received at least four citations for possession of a contraband cellphone in prison, but his rule-breaking has continued unabated. While on phone calls, he shouts down the cell block, telling others to pipe down so he can hear better. He posts on social media under his best-known moniker, Cookie Hallmon. During his last stint in prison, he counted down his sentence live, first by the days ...
... and then, by the hours.
There's a likely reason that Hallmon doesn't bother to hide any of this: Prison employees are often the ones who smuggle the phones in.
In 2016, the Mississippi Department of Corrections confiscated about 1,800 cellphones in its prisons, according to media reports. Most cellphones were brought into Parchman by visitors and staff, who sold them to inmates for anywhere from $300 to $1,000, according to a 2015 study by Indiana University researchers. Phones were also thrown or catapulted over the farm's perimeter fence.
Illicit cell phones permeate prisons across the United States. In Mississippi, the problem is especially bad. There is evidence that the number of cell phones confiscated in a state's prison system is inversely related to the income of its correctional officers — lower salaries tend to mean more cellphone-selling by guards. Mississippi pays its correctional officers less than any other state in the country — an average of $13.96 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Inmates do have access to landlines at Parchman, but the calls made on them are monitored and expensive. The MDOC works with GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link), which commands roughly half the market share of prison phone contracts in the country. The company, and its few competitors, have long been criticized for charging exorbitant prices for phone calls, often borne by inmates' families. The prisons take a cut of the fees.
Curtis Flowers has never been cited for having a cellphone in Parchman. He deals with the limitations of the death row landline, which is wheeled into his cell, usually for 12 minutes at a time. His parents put the money onto his GTL account — $68 a week. That adds up to $3,536 annually, and that's several years after the Federal Communications Commission instituted caps that drove the rates down.
As long as the market for them exists, cell phones will likely continue to find their way into American prisons. Corrections agencies are now looking for technological fixes to the problem. Earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that it has been experimenting with jamming wireless signals.
Until that technology makes it to Parchman, people on the outside will likely still be hearing from Odell Hallmon.
-MAX MAYES, DEFENSE INVESTIGATOR
The first and third Tuesday of every month, Lola and Archie Flowers make the two-and-a-half hour round trip to see their son. On April 3, they woke up early, and by 7 a.m. they were driving west from Winona, Mississippi, in their blue Nissan Versa, barely talking, radio playing low. Lola's hair was neatly curled. Archie wore a crisp plaid shirt and exhaled a raspy gospel hum through clenched teeth as he navigated a series of county roads.
"You ain't gonna see nothing but fields," Lola said. A few minutes out of town, the hills began to recede, and the land on either side of the road became sunken, wet and expansive. The occasional plantation home still stands back along the tree line, far from the passing cars. In the summer, these fields burst alive with white cotton bolls.
An hour and a quarter later, a roadside sign hinted that the prison was near. "State penitentiary area," it read. "Emergency stopping only." Razor wire was visible in the distance, and a faint collection of shacks and sheds. "What you see up there now is Parchman," Lola said.
This is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a notorious prison in the Delta often referred to as Parchman Farm, where Curtis Flowers has spent most of the past two decades. He's been incarcerated since his arrest, on Jan. 13, 1997, for allegedly murdering four people at Tardy Furniture in Winona. Through the many twists and turns in his case, he's never walked free, not after his conviction was overturned three separate times and not after two other trials ended in hung juries. After winning his appeals, he just remained behind bars waiting for prosecutors to try him again.
In 20 years, Archie and Lola have missed only a handful of visiting days — one for a surgery and the others during prison lockdowns. "We know y'all are coming," the guards sometimes tell them. "Don't nobody else show up." They search the Flowers' car as the couple pulls into the parking lot. They direct Archie and Lola through a metal detector and tell them to take off their shoes. They pat them down. Then the Flowers get on a bus to the building where their son waits. Before they're allowed inside, they are frisked and screened again. When they finally see Curtis, he's seated behind a thick glass partition.
"I go there to talk to Curtis, whatever he wants to talk about," Lola said. They speak through telephone receivers. They haven't touched since Curtis' sixth trial, in 2010. Still, these visits are more human contact than Curtis is used to. On every other day, he is just inmate R2436, one of 43 men housed in solitary 8-by-12 cells on Mississippi's death row.
Parchman is often called one of the worst prisons in America. In the past century, the penitentiary has been the site of numerous injustices: It used slave labor long after emancipation; it perpetuated segregation long after the Civil Rights Act; and violence has long been commonplace. Federal court rulings and a series of reforms have improved conditions in recent years. But life inside Parchman, the life Curtis Flowers has had to endure, is a brutal one.
Archie Flowers can't remember when exactly he put together this arrangement of the gospel song I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray. But he's been singing it for at least 21 years, because he and Curtis used to perform it together.
The song is older than Archie himself. It's a variation of a traditional African-American spiritual, a vocal harmony that typically blended religious themes with tales of slavery.
"Way back, my mama used to sing that out in the field chopping cotton," Archie said. As a child, he also heard it as a church hymn sung at a fast tempo.
Years later, he needed a number to perform on stage. "I thought, 'I'm gonna take that song and rearrange it and fix it for a quartet group,'" Archie said. When Archie's mother heard his rendition, she cried. "She couldn't stand it," he said, laughing.
Here's the Archie Flowers version:
Faith will unlock the door.
Every time you're burdened down,
That's the time to pray a little more.
You've got to pray
Day and night,
Jesus will make
Your burden light.
I was way down yonder by myself,
And I couldn't hear nobody pray.
-ROSCOE CAMPBELL, CURTIS' UNCLE
Johnny Vince Evans
The Melody Kings