On April 30, 2018, American Public Media’s true crime podcast In The Dark began airing its second season, an investigation of the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man in Mississippi accused of a quadruple homicide at a furniture store in 1996. The crime itself was extraordinary, but the case drew In The Dark’s attention because a local prosecutor had tried Flowers six times for the murders. Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death in the first three trials, but each time, the verdict was overturned on appeal — for prosecutorial misconduct in the first and second trials, and for racially discriminatory jury selection in the third. The fourth and fifth trials ended with hung juries. In the sixth, he was again convicted and sentenced to death, and his latest appeal was ongoing when the podcast started. Flowers has remained imprisoned the entire time, for more than 20 years.
In The Dark’s reporting on the case documented the inequities and outright barbarism of Mississippi’s criminal justice system. The show revealed that the district attorney’s office bullied and threatened people into lying on the witness stand. In The Dark also found out that prosecution’s star witness, Odell Hallmon, secretly received special treatment — prosecutors dropped charges in seven felony cases against him — in exchange for his false testimony that Flowers made a jailhouse confession. The podcast’s reporters spent months methodically proving that prosecutors systematically denied black people a seat in the jury box, and how a man who is likely innocent has been repeatedly sentenced to death.
Last month, the Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ latest conviction, citing In The Dark’s reporting. The show has won rightful fame for its work helping to save Flowers’ life.
But instead of stopping there, its reporters started snitching to the same system whose injustice they had just unmasked.
On July 2, the podcast, which has been downloaded more than 24 million times in its second season, laid out a lengthy argument that a different man, Willie James Hemphill, committed the 1996 murders. The host, Madeleine Baran, carefully noted that only some of evidence seemed to point in Hemphill’s direction, even though a flimsy case was enough to almost execute the man her show just found innocent.
In The Dark was clearly righteous in exonerating a black man condemned by a ludicrously unjust system. But attempting to deliver another black man into that same system goes against its good work.
The podcast’s decision to try to figure out who may have actually committed the murders at the Tardy Furniture store in Winona, Mississippi isn’t surprising. Finding the truly guilty person (or people) strengthens the case that Flowers is innocent. Simplistic journalism ethics call for reporters to follow the facts wherever they might lead. Suppressing the evidence they’ve already gathered might mean denying justice to the victims. It might mean letting someone get away with an abominable crime.
Willie James Hemphill has done many terrible things. He allegedly stabbed a woman with a screwdriver, among other violent crimes. He allegedly committed robberies to fund a drug habit. He lived near Tardy Furniture at the time of the murders, and near where a gun that might have been the murder weapon was found. His alibi is weak, according to In The Dark. Just after the murders, police arrested and jailed him as a suspect, but then let him go.
The ugly facts of Hemphill’s past weren’t ugly enough for the podcast — In The Dark emphasized its clear disdain of him. Baran noted that Hemphill was known to love the song “Nasty Bitch” by Bust Down — it was “not for kids,” Baran said — which he would sing and dance to on Winona’s streets in those days. When the podcast’s reporter Parker Yesko confronted Hemphill about whether he committed the murders, he denied it, and the show included audio of the hideous, misogynistic things he said in response. It’s almost impossible to not hate him — and to believe he is guilty.
Hemphill, now almost 50, hasn’t been arrested for violence in more than a decade, according to the rap sheet assembled on In The Dark’s website. His misdeeds, while abhorrent, are also likely inseparable from his decades-long history of poverty and addiction. There is little doubt that Hemphill has done terrible things. But that doesn’t mean that he killed those four people at Tardy Furniture.
But In The Dark was apparently unsatisfied with exonerating the innocent: It needed the narrative closure of guilt, and found its key to that in Hemphill. Following a masterful turn as Flowers’ defense lawyer, the podcast also wanted to play the part of the prosecution.
This narrative turn places In The Dark firmly, disappointingly, and alarmingly in the mainstream of the True Crime genre. Despite raising earthshaking doubts about the justice system, the show ultimately conforms to the system’s logic — that crime, denuded of context, must be solved and punished.
The podcast has never cared about the fundamental horrors of the justice system; it just wants to ensure that those horrors only happen to the correct people. Their reporters know better than anyone that Hemphill wouldn’t get a fair trial. Yet they’re willing to hand him over to the prosecution, to possibly watch him die. Maybe they’ll cover that in their next season.