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Shining light on 'In The Dark'

Madeleine Baran, left, and Samara Freemark answer audience questions about "In The Dark," the award-winning podcast produced by American Public Media based in St. Paul. Chelsey Perkins / Forum News Service

BAXTER, Minn. — On Friday, Nov. 2, in Washington, D.C., the justices of the most powerful court in the nation discussed the appeal of a Mississippi man on death row for murder — based in part on new findings discovered by investigative reporters in Minnesota.

If Curtis Flowers wins his appeal, it would be the sixth time he's done so, and could lead to a seventh trial — for the same crime, brought by the same prosecutor — over the 22 years since it occurred. The extraordinary case is the subject of Season Two of "In The Dark," an award-winning podcast produced by American Public Media, the national arm of Minnesota Public Radio. Lead reporter Madeleine Baran and senior producer Samara Freemark offered a behind-the-scenes look at their investigative journalism at an event Thursday night at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter.

The MPR Connects! event offers listeners a chance to meet public radio staff, learn more about their work and ask questions. About 75 people attended, including Melanie Cole, who traveled from Fergus Falls to take part.

"I absolutely admire the work that they did on both of the podcast (seasons), so I wanted just to see if I could get any insight into what makes them tick, and how they come up with their ideas and to compliment them on this great work they've done," Cole said.

"I think it's important for us to, once we're done with a big project, to share it with people all across the state and all across, of course, the country, and to be able to answer questions and talk more about investigative reporting," Baran said before event. "People always have great questions at events like this."

Baran wasn't exaggerating when she described the project as big. The in-depth investigation into why Flowers continued to be tried for a quadruple murder despite a surprising lack of evidence and several rulings finding unfair trials took more than a year to complete. The St. Paul-based journalists moved to Winona, Miss., interviewed hundreds of people and spent innumerable hours locating and reading thousands of documents.

The information they uncovered cast serious doubt on the guilt of Flowers and raised questions about the conduct and motives of District Attorney Doug Evans in continuing to prosecute the case.

Among their findings (spoiler alert): The state's key witness, Odell Hallmon — whose testimony provided the only direct evidence of Flowers' apparent guilt — admitted to Freemark he lied on the stand about Flowers confessing to him in jail. Evidence concerning an alternative suspect, Willie James Hemphill, was never presented to Flowers' defense attorneys. A gun found near the scene of the crime was allegedly turned over to police, but is now nowhere to be found. The team poked holes in nearly every piece of circumstantial evidence the state presented in the Flowers case and exposed "junk science" presented to jurors.

Beyond the facts of the case itself, the journalists conducted original research and data analysis of Evans' behavior in assembling juries over his 26 years as a prosecutor. They found Evans' struck potential black jurors at a rate 4.5 times higher than potential white jurors. Flowers faced all-white or nearly all-white juries in each of his six trials, despite the city's population being more than half black.

"When we think about stories to choose, we're always looking for a story that tells a larger story that we believe is important, not just in the individual case or the story we're putting on in a larger sense," Baran said. "So for this, it was clearly the power of the prosecutors and the role of race in the criminal justice system. ... I think this story points out what can happen when there really is no check on the power of a prosecutor."

The Flowers case is the second investigation the team took on. The first season of "In The Dark" examined one of the most famous abduction stories in Minnesota history, seeking to explain why it took law enforcement so long to solve the disappearance of 11-year-old St. Joseph boy Jacob Wetterling. That season, which revealed serious problems with the investigative efforts of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office and several other involved agencies, won a 2016 Peabody Award.

So what do Baran and Freemark hope people get out of their work? Empowerment to learn more about their own public officials and the criminal justice system, and information leading to accountability.

"We see a lot of this as providing information to people we think is important, but also giving people the tools to find out information about the people who are in power where they live, so they can determine what they want to do," Baran said. "A lot of positions that we cover are elected positions, and yet we see over and over again, there's so many elected positions where there's really very little information voters have about who to vote for, and oftentimes the candidates run unopposed.

"So if we can kind of contribute in a way to help people get thinking about these issues so that when they go to vote, they've thought about it before or they've looked up information or they've gone to a public meeting and they've asked some questions they maybe haven't asked before, I would consider that to be a success."

Baran added she hoped their work could help people become more informed about their own participation in the courtroom.

"Any of us could be called to jury duty, and I think it's better that we go into jury duty knowing a few things that are critical," she said. "We should be skeptical of science in the courtrooms, we should pay attention to the role of race in the criminal justice system. But we are definitely in a moment where people are really concerned about the criminal justice system and they want more information."

Visit www.apmreports.org/in-the-dark to learn more about "In The Dark" to and find out how to listen.