Supreme Court Tosses Black Man’s Murder Conviction Over Racial Bias

June 21, 2019 Updated: June 21, 2019

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Friday, June 21, threw out the murder conviction and death sentence for a black man in Mississippi because of a prosecutor’s efforts to keep African Americans off the jury. The defendant already has been tried six times and now could face the seventh trial.

The removal of black prospective jurors violated the rights of inmate Curtis Flowers, the court said in a 7-2 decision.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court’s majority opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

In Flowers’ sixth trial, the jury was made up of 11 whites and one African American. District Attorney Doug Evans struck five black prospective jurors.

In the earlier trials, three convictions were tossed out, including one when the prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury. In the second trial, the judge chided Evans for striking a juror based on race. Two other trials ended when jurors couldn’t reach unanimous verdicts.

“The numbers speak loudly,” Kavanaugh said in a summary of his opinion that he read in the courtroom, noting that Evans had removed 41 of the 42 prospective black jurors over the six trials. “We cannot ignore that history.”

Attorney Sheri Johnson leaves the Supreme Court after challenging a Mississippi prosecutor’s decision to keep African-Americans off the jury in the trial of Curtis Flowers, in Washington on March 20, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite via AP)

In dissent, Thomas called Kavanaugh’s opinion “manifestly incorrect” and wrote that Flowers presented “no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination.”

Flowers has been in jail for more than 22 years since his arrest, after four people were found shot to death in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, in July 1996.

Flowers was arrested several months later, described by prosecutors as a disgruntled former employee who sought revenge against the store’s owner because she fired him and withheld most of his pay to cover the cost of merchandise he damaged. Nearly $300 was found missing after the killings.

Defense lawyers have argued that witness statements and physical evidence against Flowers are too weak to convict him. A jailhouse informant who claimed Flowers had confessed to him recanted in recorded telephone conversations with American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast. There’s a separate appeal pending in state court questioning Flowers’ actual guilt, citing in part evidence that reporters for “In the Dark” detailed.

In the course of selecting a jury, lawyers can excuse a juror merely because of a suspicion that a particular person would vote against their client. Those are called peremptory strikes, and they have been the focus of the complaints about discrimination.

Supreme court in Washington
The Supreme Court is seen under stormy skies in Washington on June 20, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Supreme Court tried to stamp out discrimination in the composition of juries in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986. The court ruled then that jurors couldn’t be excused from service because of their race and set up a system by which trial judges could evaluate claims of discrimination and the race-neutral explanations by prosecutors.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had been the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights attorney, was part of the Batson case majority, but he said the only way to end discrimination in jury selection was to eliminate peremptory strikes.

Flowers’ case has been to the high court before. In 2016, the justices ordered Mississippi’s top court to re-examine racial bias issues in Flowers’ case following a high court ruling in favor of a Georgia inmate because of a racially discriminatory jury. But the Mississippi justices divided 5-4 in upholding the verdict against Flowers. The state, defending the conviction, said the justices must narrow the focus from Evans’ broader record to the case at hand.

But Kavanaugh said that even on the narrower basis, there is evidence that at least one prospective black juror for the sixth trial, Carolyn Wright, was similarly situated to white jurors and was improperly excused by Evans.

Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh attend the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building
Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh attend the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on Feb. 5, 2019. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

“The trial court clearly erred in ruling that the state’s peremptory strike of Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Kavanaugh wrote.

It was not clear whether Mississippi would try Flowers a seventh time.

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