Inmate’s Murder Conviction Tossed Due to Repeated Effort to Keep Blacks Off Jury

June 21, 2019 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Supreme Court building, June 2019. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The murder conviction and death sentence of a black inmate in Mississippi cannot stand because the trial court failed to recognize a prosecutors efforts to keep blacks off the jury was due at least in part to discriminatory intent, the Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The inmate in the case, Curtis Flowers, has already been tried six times for a quadruple murder that occurred at a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, in 1996. Three of the four victims were white.

At the first two trials, prosecutors used their peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors. In each case, the jury that was eventually seated convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. Those two convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct.

At the third trial, prosecutors used all of their 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death.

The Mississippi Supreme Court again reversed the jury’s decision, this time concluding prosecutors exercised their peremptory strikes on the basis of race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges in a criminal case may not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race.

Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials.

At the sixth trial, prosecutors exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. Flowers again raised a Batson claim, but the trial court concluded prosecutors had offered race-neutral reasons for each of the five peremptory strikes.

The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court later vacated the outcome of the sixth case and remanded the matter back to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which later affirmed Flower’s death sentence.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest decision in the case, Flowers now faces the prospect of a seventh trial.

Writing for the majority in the court’s 7-2 decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that over the course of Flowers six trials, prosecutors struck 41 of 42 prospective black jurors. “At the sixth trial, moreover, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors,” the justice wrote.

“A court confronting that kind of pattern cannot ignore it,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The lopsidedness of the prosecutor’s questioning and inquiry can itself be evidence of the prosecutor’s objective as much as it is of the actual qualifications of the black and white prospective jurors who are struck or seated.”

In conclusion, Kavanaugh wrote, “All that we need to decide, and all that we do decide, is that all of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.

“In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground,” the justice said. “We simply enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented from the opinion.

The case is Flowers v. Mississippi. No 17-9572.

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