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Lawyers for Mississippi death-row inmate want conviction overturned

By Emily Le Coz

JACKSON Miss. (Reuters) - Attorneys for a Mississippi death-row inmate who was tried six times for the same killings told the state Supreme Court on Monday that his most recent trial was unfair and his conviction should be overturned.

Lawyers for Curtis Flowers, a black man convicted in the 1996 slayings of four people at a furniture store from which he had been fired days earlier, said jury selection in his 2010 trial was racially biased and that evidence against him was both lacking and misrepresented by prosecutors. 

“No one can know what the jury would have done in the absence of those errors,” said Sheri Lynn Johnson, an attorney for Flowers, now 44.

Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997, 1999 and 2004, but the state Supreme Court overturned each of those convictions – the first two because of prosecutorial misconduct and the third because of racial discrimination during jury selection.

Two more trials, in 2007 and 2008, ended in hung juries split along racial lines. In 2010, Flowers was again convicted and sentenced to death.

The nearly three-hour hearing on Monday drew about 60 spectators, many of them relatives of Flowers or the victims – all of whom had worked at Tardy Furniture store in the small central Mississippi city of Winona.

Killed were store owner Bertha Tardy, 59; bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, 45; delivery worker Robert Golden, 42; and 16-year-old Derrick Stewart, a part-time employee. 

All the victims except Golden were white. Each had been shot in the head at close range.

Prosecutors said Flowers “had a beef” with Tardy for firing him and withholding his paycheck to cover the cost of batteries he had damaged before his termination. They say he returned to the store and committed the killings.

Evidence supporting the allegation included witness testimony, a gun stolen from Flowers' relative on the morning of the crime and an empty shoe box in his home whose shoes would have matched the size and style of the print left at the crime scene.

Defense attorneys say Flowers was at home during the crime and had no animosity toward Tardy. They also dismissed witness testimony as coerced and said the murder investigation was shoddy.

(Reporting by Emily Le Coz; Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Peter Cooney)

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