Supreme Court Strikes Down Murder Convictions on Grounds of Racial Bias

June 24, 2019 Updated: June 24, 2019

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court struck down a black inmate’s murder convictions and death sentence because the white man who prosecuted him on behalf of Mississippi unconstitutionally excluded blacks from the jury at his final trial and at others that preceded it.

Curtis Giovanni Flowers, 49, was condemned to death for murdering four employees of the now-closed Tardy Furniture store during a 1996 robbery in Winona, Mississippi, a small town with a population of 5,000.

Three of Flowers’s victims were white; one was black. Two trials ended in hung juries. Convictions from three trials were reversed because prosecutor Doug Evans, a Democrat, violated Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 Supreme Court decision that forbids a state from using its peremptory challenges to exclude jurors because of their race. A peremptory challenge is one that a lawyer doesn’t have to justify in court.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ordered the Mississippi Supreme Court to reconsider the case in light of Foster v. Chatman, which found another prosecutor in Georgia showed racial animosity in excluding all four black prospective jurors in a murder trial with a black defendant. The convictions and sentence from the final Flowers trial were then upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which rejected claims of Evans acting out of racial bias, even though he dismissed five of the six black potential jurors. Flowers appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court released its new decision in Flowers v. Mississippi on June 21.

“Here, our review of the history of the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ first four trials strongly supports the conclusion that his use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the court’s 7–2 opinion.

“The numbers speak loudly. Over the course of the first four trials, there were 36 black prospective jurors against whom the State could have exercised a peremptory strike.

The State tried to strike all 36. The State used its available peremptory strikes to attempt to strike every single black prospective juror that it could have struck.”

In six trials overall, the prosecutor moved to strike 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors and “engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“Other than voting, serving on a jury is the most substantial opportunity that most citizens have to participate in the democratic process.

“Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.

“The Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose.”

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined in part by Justice Neil Gorsuch. The court placed undue emphasis on the juror-selection process at the expense of justice, Thomas wrote.

Thomas wrote that almost all the peremptory strikes were race-neutral and said the court’s decision “distorts the record of this case, eviscerates our standard of review, and vacates four murder convictions because the State struck a juror who would have been stricken by any competent attorney.”

“The Court today does not dispute that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flowers or that he was tried by an impartial jury,” he said.

“The only clear errors in this case are committed by today’s majority.”