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Winona

Some say venue law isn't fair

By WILLIAM BROWNING

Greenwood Commonwealth

WINONA, Miss. (AP) - A Mississippi law is slowing the wheels of

justice in a 12-year-old quadruple murder case, according to a

victim's daughter.

"When the rights lean the defendant's way, there is something

wrong," said Roxanne Ballard, whose mother, Bertha Tardy, was one

of four people shot to death in downtown Winona in 1996.

"I'm not asking for it to lean my way. I just want it to lean

in the middle."

Curtis Giovanni Flowers has been convicted and sentenced to

death three times for the murder of Ballard's mother - and three

others - inside Tardy Furniture. Those convictions were later

reversed on appeal. A fourth trial, held in 2007, and a fifth,

which ended in Sept. 30, both ended in hung juries.

After two jurors in the fifth trial, James Franklin Bibbs and

Mary Annette Purnell, were arrested, jailed and ultimately indicted

on charges of perjury, some are wondering if prosecutors are

getting a fair stab at justice in Montgomery County.

Under state law, defendants may request a change of venue if

they feel a fair jury can't be seated in the county of

jurisdiction. Prosecutors, however, aren't afforded the same right.

"What I would like to see, is the law be fair," Ballard said.

"It needs to be fair for everyone."

At the conclusion of the fifth trial, Circuit Judge Joseph H.

Loper Jr. urged District Attorney Doug Evans to get with the

Mississippi Prosecutors Association and lobby for a change in state

law so that prosecutors could request that a trial be moved.

The MPA has not lobbied for this in 10 years.

Evans could not be reached for comment, but in the past he has

expressed frustration with the situation.

"How can you tell people to depend on the justice system when

in this case the justice system isn't working?" Evans has said of

the Flowers case.

At least one state lawmaker agrees and, at the urging of

victims' family members, is working to have a bill ready to

introduce to the legislature by January.

"Obviously, after five trials, it ain't working," said state

Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona. "And it's obviously a situation

worth looking into."

With a sixth trial on the way, the combined price of the first

five equaled about $300,000.

"That's a lot of money for a poor county like Montgomery

County," Chassaniol said. "So yes, I'm exploring the possibility

of enacting some legislation that would keep this mess from

happening."

Andre de Gruy, one of Flowers' defense attorneys and director of

the state Office of Capital Defense Counsel, said the law is based

on rights afforded to defendants by the Mississippi Constitution.

"The constitution protects us from the government," De Gruy

said. "That's why we have a constitution in this country. And it

says that if a person is accused of a crime in a county, the folks

from that county are the ones who get to decide (guilt or

innocence)."

While acknowledging the last trial's troubles, De Gruy said the

current talk about a need to change state law is simply a knee-jerk

reaction.

"We are all frustrated with what happened," he said. "But we

have to trust the system that is in place when we hit these bumps

in the road. This isn't something the Legislature needs to be

talking about at all. There are a whole lot of other ways to deal

with this."

De Gruy suggested more thorough investigations of potential

jurors during the early stages of the selection process. He also

said potential jurors could be interviewed one-on-one.

District Attorney James Powell said that when it comes to

requesting a change of venue, a courtroom's playing field isn't

level.

"It's a problem, absolutely, and it's something that needs to

be looked at," he said. "Changing that law would ensure that

cases are tried on facts and law and not whether or not somebody

knows the defendant."

Powell said he has run into the problem while prosecuting

elected officials.

"You usually end up pleading those out for less than they're

worth because you know that from the start you'll be working with a

pool of jurors that put the guy in office because they like him."

Powell's district includes Humphreys, Holmes and Yazoo counties.

District Attorney DeWayne Richardson agrees with De Gruy on the

issue.

"Have I ever wanted to move a trial out of county? Of course,"

said Richardson, whose district includes Leflore, Washington and

Sunflower counties.

"But that's a defendant's right; that's one of many rights a

defendant has. Judges can't change it, and prosecutors can't change

it. You just have to respect the law and work with what you got."

Ballard fears justice for the Tardy Furniture murders will be

found only with a change of law.

"I don't see how it could be fair in Montgomery County."

She said the law as it stands has only added to the 12 years

worth of trials, hearings and appeals that her family has had to

endure in their quest for justice.

Flowers has stood trial for the slayings in 1997, 1999, 2005,

2007 and 2008.

"That doesn't leave a lot of time to get back to normal,"

Ballard said. "Having to go through this over and over again is

terrible. And you never really get over it. You'll always miss your

mother, or your wife, or your husband, or your son. But the thing

is, we can't get past it.

"Anyone could find themselves in this situation, and it's very

important that the law be neutral. Let the judge or a neutral party

be the one to decide where a trial should happen."

---

Information from: Greenwood Commonwealth,

http://www.gwcommonwealth.com

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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