Supreme Court Appears Set to Overturn Mississippi Murder Case Based on Racial Bias

March 21, 2019by David G. Savage
US Capitol building at night in summer. Washington DC. White house building in the light of lanterns. (Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court justices sounded ready Wednesday to overturn a Mississippi murder conviction because of racial bias in selecting jurors.

It marked the latest chapter in an extraordinary case involving a small-town white prosecutor who had repeatedly barred most or all black jurors from serving on six separate trials of Curtis Flowers, an African-American defendant accused of killing four people.

From the opening moment of Wednesday’s argument, the Mississippi state attorney ran into sharp skepticism, not just from the court’s liberals, but from new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh as well.

“We can’t take the history out of this case,” Kavanaugh said. The white prosecutor moved to strike 41 of 42 black prospective jurors, he noted. “How do you look at that and not come away thinking” that a blatant racial bias was at work, he asked.

The prosecutor, Doug Evans, had repeatedly used his allotted juror challenges to exclude black people. Three convictions were overturned by Mississippi’s high court because of misconduct or racial bias by the prosecutor. Two others led to mistrials after the juries deadlocked. In 2010, he won a murder conviction on all four counts — with a jury that had one African-American and 11 whites.

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Flowers vs. Mississippi.

The argument featured a rare question from Justice Clarence Thomas. In his first question in open court since 2016, Thomas — who in the past has been skeptical of cases seeking to show racial bias in jury selection — asked whether the defense attorney in the Flowers trial had also excluded jurors, and what the race was of those potential jurors.

The history of racism in Mississippi loomed over the argument, and the only question for the justices seemed to be whether to focus narrowly on the jury in the last trial or more broadly on the pattern of racial discrimination that played out over all six.

In July 1996, four employees of a furniture store were found shot to death in Winona, Miss. Evans charged Flowers with the killings in part because he had been fired from the store a few days before.

The case made legal history in Mississippi. Not only has it resulted in six separate jury trials, the saga was the focus of a well-regarded podcast, “In the Dark,” that raised questions about the evidence against Flowers.

Cornell law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, who represented Flowers, urged the justices to set aside the conviction yet again because the prosecutor has shown he will not abide by the law when it comes to selecting a jury.

“The history is relevant,” she said. It is “a history of a desire for an all-white jury, a history of willingness to violate the Constitution, and a history of willingness to make false statements to a trial court.” She argued that even if the justices focus just on the sixth trial, they should be highly skeptical of the prosecutor’s reasons for excluding black prospective jurors.

Under the 1986 decision in Batson vs. Kentucky, prosecutors are required to explain why they sought to strike a black person from the jury if there appears to a pattern of racial bias.

When selecting a jury, Evans had peppered potential black jurors with numerous questions in an effort to find a nonracial reason to exclude them, Johnson said, but accepted potential white jurors after asking only a question or two.

Justice Elena Kagan agreed, citing as an example Carolyn Wright, a black woman who was struck from the jury in the sixth trial.

“Ms. Wright is a perfect juror for a prosecutor, right?” Kagan told the state’s attorney Jason Davis. “She strongly favors the death penalty. Her uncle is a prison security guard. Her relative is the victim of a violent crime. Except for her race, you would think that this is a juror that a prosecutor would love when she walks in the door.” But the prosecutor excluded her nonetheless and explained she may have owed money to the furniture store at one time.

For the high court, it is the latest of many efforts to remove race as a controlling factor in choosing jurors.

“Part of Batson was about confidence of the community and the fairness of the criminal justice system,” Kavanaugh said. “That was against a backdrop of a lot of decades of all-white juries convicting black defendants. … Can you say you have confidence in how this all transpired in this case?”

“I have confidence in this record,” the state’s attorney replied.

The justices did not sound convinced. Several asked why Mississippi’s attorney general had not stepped in and appointed a new prosecutor to try the case against Flowers. Davis agreed that idea sounded good, but he explained the state may intervene only if the local prosecutor asks for a change.

State officials may still get a chance to take over the case. If the Supreme Court overturns the conviction because of misconduct by the prosecutor, the case will go back to the state to decide whether to prosecute Flowers for a seventh time.

———

©2019 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Supreme Court

Supreme Court Confronts Homeless Crisis and Whether There’s a Right to Sleep on the Sidewalk In The News
Supreme Court Confronts Homeless Crisis and Whether There’s a Right to Sleep on the Sidewalk

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court meets Friday to consider for the first time whether the Constitution gives homeless people a right to sleep on the sidewalk. The justices are weighing an appeal of a much-disputed ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that held last... Read More

Supreme Court May Punt Rather Than Rule on Key Gun-Rights Case Supreme Court
Supreme Court May Punt Rather Than Rule on Key Gun-Rights Case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court justices sounded uncertain Monday over whether to rule on a major gun-rights case, since New York City has repealed the disputed law at issue that restricted carrying a licensed weapon outside the city. The gun owners who sued “got everything they... Read More

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Discharged From Hospital, Court Says Supreme Court
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Discharged From Hospital, Court Says

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was discharged from a Baltimore hospital Sunday and is “home and doing well,” the court said in a statement. The 86-year-old was hospitalized Friday night with chills and a fever, and her condition improved Saturday. “With intravenous antibiotics... Read More

Supreme Court Steps Into Google-Oracle Copyright Fight
Supreme Court Steps Into Google-Oracle Copyright Fight
November 18, 2019
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide a long-running copyright dispute between technology giants Oracle and Google. The case stems from Google’s development of its hugely popular Android operating system by using Oracle’s Java programming language. Oracle claims Google owes it roughly $8 billion... Read More

Chief Justice Orders Delay in House Fight for Trump Records
Chief Justice Orders Delay in House Fight for Trump Records
November 18, 2019
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON —  Chief Justice John Roberts on Monday imposed an indefinite delay in the House of Representatives’ demand for President Donald Trump’s financial records. Roberts’ order Monday provides no hint about how the Supreme Court ultimately will resolve the dispute. It was handed down just hours... Read More

Trump Asks Supreme Court to Bar Release of His Tax Returns Law
Trump Asks Supreme Court to Bar Release of His Tax Returns
November 15, 2019
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to bar his accounting firm from turning over eight years of his tax returns to prosecutors in New York. The case has significance far beyond Trump as it could determined the scope of presidential immunity... Read More

Straight From The Well
scroll top