CATEGORY: Courts

AUTHOR: GIBSON

HED:Witnesses testify to seeing defendant near murder scene

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Eyewitness accounts in court Wednesday placed a capital murder defendant outside a Winona furniture store about the same time four people were killed there in July 1996.

Investigators also testified Wednesday about a pair of athletic shoes and a stolen .380-caliber handgun that prosecutors believe can link Curtis Flowers to the Tardy Furniture store slayings.

Flowers, 26, of Winona, who was fired from his job at the furniture store, is charged with fatally shooting store owner Bertha Tardy, and store employees Derrick Stewart, Robert Golden and Carmen Rigby.

The case being held at the Lee County Justice Center charges Flowers for the Tardy killing only. The other three counts of capital murder are set to be tried separately at a later date.

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday after calling more than 20 witnesses. It seeks to prove Flowers guilty of killing Bertha Tardy in the course of a robbery.

Attorneys for Flowers, who will begin making their case today at 9 a.m., said they expect to call between 10 and 15 witnesses.

If the jury finds Flowers guilty of capital murder, the trial will begin a second phase to determine if the death penalty should be imposed.

Clemmie Fleming of Winona testified Wednesday she saw Curtis Flowers sprinting from the corner of the Tardy Furniture store where four people were fatally shot the morning of July 16, 1996.

Fleming was riding in a car down the street in front of the store about 10 a.m. the day of the slayings.

"He was running away from the store," Fleming said.

Six eyewitnesses called Tuesday and Wednesday placed Flowers around the Angelica apparel plant in Winona and the furniture store on the morning of the slayings.

Flowers had told investigators when he was interviewed a few hours after the slayings he had not been on the east side of U.S. Highway 51, which bisects Winona, testified State Highway Patrol Criminal Investigator Jack Mathews.

Flower's home was on the west side of the highway. The furniture store and the clothing plant - where a gun believed to be the murder weapon was reported stolen - are both on the east side of the highway.

Most of the witnesses who saw Flowers around Winona on the day of the slayings told the jury Flowers was wearing a white shirt and black pants.

However, there accounts differed about the length of the shirt sleeves and the pants. Some said he was wearing jeans; others thought he was wearing windsuit pants.

Investigators also testified Wednesday that they determined nearly $300 was taken from the furniture store. Proving a robbery occurred in the commission of the killings is necessary to obtain a capital murder verdict.

Flowers' uncle Doyle Simpson testified his nephew knew he kept a .380 handgun in the glove box of his vehicle.

Simpson said other Angelica plant employees told him they saw Flowers standing by his car on the morning the gun was stolen from Simpson's car and the people were shot at the furniture store.

The bullets from a post Simpson used for target practice behind his mother's home, bullets from the crime scene and bullets recovered from the victims all were fired by the same or similar .380 caliber handgun, according to Steve Byrd of the State Crime Lab.

Although the murder weapon was not recovered, forensic tests suggest Flowers had recently fired a gun, an expert witness said.

Joe Andrews, a State Crime Lab forensic scientist, testified that a gun powder residue test done on Flowers several hours after the slayings was positive.

On cross examination, Andrews said the substance found on Flowers hand was definitely gun powder, but that the test could have been contaminated.

Mathews, who administered the test, testified that he had washed his hands and worn rubber gloves to avoid contaminating the test.

Andrews also testified he was able to determine bloody footprints found in the store were made by a size 10 1/2 pair of Fila Grant Hill tennis shoes.

A box for a pair of size 10 1/2 Fila Grant Hill tennis shoes was found at Flowers' residence, but Flowers denied ever owning those shoes, investigators testified.

Johnson was the only person associated with the household that wore 10 1/2 shoes. Some eyewitnesses testified they saw him wearing the shoes on the morning of the slayings.

Defense attorneys continued to lay foundations for building reasonable doubt by questioning inconsistencies in prosecution testimony, especially Simpson's.

In opening arguments, Attorney Billy Gilmore suggested Simpson, who was among the initial suspects in the investigation, should have been investigated more thoroughly.

On cross examination, Simpson did admit he initially lied to investigators about where he got the gun.

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