INDIANAPOLIS — At first, Willie James Hemphill was calm.
It was June 21 — just an hour before the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Curtis Flowers' conviction — and reporters for In the Dark had intercepted Hemphill at a courthouse in Indianapolis. They wanted to ask him about his alibi for the day of the Tardy Furniture murders, an alibi that hadn't checked out.
Hemphill seemed surprised when reminded that he'd told In the Dark in June 2018 that he was with an old friend named Twanda Woods. And he was undeterred, at first, when he was told that Woods hadn't corroborated his story. Soon that would change.
In the Dark has previously reported that Hemphill was an initial suspect in the days after the July 1996 murders in Winona, Mississippi. Records show he was questioned — Hemphill said he was interrogated for hours — and held for 11 days before being released. Nothing in the investigative file for the case explains why officers let him go.
When reporters talked to Hemphill last year, he said investigators cleared him because he had an alibi — he called it "airtight." He said: "If it wasn't for the fact that I had an airtight alibi, I could be the one on death row right now."
"I was nowhere near the scene," he said. "I was out of the whole jurisdiction ... in another state."
Initially, Hemphill refused to provide further details of his whereabouts on July 16, 1996. But after several hours of interviews conducted over two days, Hemphill finally disclosed his alibi: He said he was at a mall in Memphis at the time of the murders, with a Winona woman named Twanda Woods.
It would indeed have been a solid alibi — except it didn't check out.
After months of looking for Twanda Woods, In the Dark reporters located her a few months ago at her trailer in Winona, half a mile south of Tardy Furniture. Asked if she remembered where she was when the murders happened, she recalled the morning clearly.
"I was here in Winona," Woods said. "I was coming out of Piggly Wiggly and there was a woman, I will never forget her name. It was Geraldine. She's like, 'Girl, they just saying that Mrs. Tardy got killed downtown.'... It was still in the morning time."
Memphis is two hours north of Winona, just across the border with Tennessee. If Woods had been at the mall with Hemphill at the time of the murders — roughly 10 a.m. — she couldn't have been back in Winona any earlier than noon. And if the two had spent just an hour at the mall — assuming the mall, which is now closed, opened as early as 9 a.m. — they'd have needed to leave Winona no later than 7 o'clock that morning.
More importantly, Woods said she was certain that she didn't make the trip with Hemphill that day. "I can't recall seeing him that day," Woods said. "We did go to the mall, but it wasn't the day of the killing. It wasn't that day." She said that investigators have never questioned her about Hemphill's story.
In the 1980s and '90s, Hemphill spent time in Memphis. His mother lived there, and he had gone to school there on and off. But he never cut ties with Winona, where his grandmother remained and where he committed a slew of small-time thefts in the years before and after the Tardy Furniture murders, according to public records.
Hemphill's ex-girlfriend Monkra Moore told In the Dark that she and Hemphill lived together on the east side of Winona in 1996 and that he was at home around 7 a.m. on the morning of the murders when she was leaving for work. That night, according to Moore, Hemphill was home with an ounce of marijuana, some of which they smoked together.
So where was Hemphill during the day? By his own account, someone told investigators that they'd seen him on Front Street that morning, though Hemphill has said repeatedly that he wasn't there.
Other facts may help explain why Hemphill initially was a suspect: The shoes he told In the Dark that he was wearing when he was questioned by investigators on July 21, 1996 — Fila Grant Hill high-tops — are the same type of sneaker that had left bloody footprints at the scene of the murders five days earlier. And Hemphill had a history of committing crimes in Winona and Memphis.
Now an old friend refuted his alibi.
Reporters from In the Dark tried to contact Hemphill online to present him with these findings. He never responded. Just weeks ago, however, reporters discovered that Hemphill had an upcoming court date in Indianapolis and met him there.
Told that Woods had a clear memory of being in Winona on the morning of July 16 and learning, outside the Piggly Wiggly, that the murders had just happened, Hemphill interrupted and altered his story.
"Yeah ... we was leaving. Me and her was leaving," he said, forfeiting his Memphis alibi altogether and placing himself a short walk from Tardy Furniture.
Asked to clarify what he'd just said, Hemphill became agitated. "You're confusing me. Me and Twanda was out of town," he said. "I don't understand how she said that."
And then Hemphill stormed off, ending the interview. Before he disappeared into a men's bathroom, he once again dodged the question of where he was on the day of the murders and insulted two female reporters with vulgarities.
Asked if he'd committed the murders at Tardy Furniture, he simply said, "Hell, no."