Justices Nix Conviction For 'Relentless' Black Juror Exclusion

By Jimmy Hoover | June 21, 2019, 3:56 PM EDT

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday threw out the conviction of a Mississippi man sentenced to death because the local prosecutor, over the course of six separate trials, systematically excluded African Americans from serving on the jury, calling that history strong enough evidence of discriminatory intent.

In a 7-2 ruling, the court said that Winona, Mississippi, District Attorney Doug Evans was "relentless" in targeting prospective African American jurors with peremptory strikes while he served as the lead prosecutor in the various murder trials for defendant Curtis Flowers.

"The state's relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in an opinion for the court that was highly critical of both the prosecution and the trial court for tolerating the allegedly discriminatory juror strikes.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's sole African American member, authored a bitter dissent, saying Justice Kavanaugh's majority opinion "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."

Justice Neil Gorsuch partially joined Justice Thomas' opinion, but left his name off a portion of the dissent where Justice Thomas calls for the court to overturn the Supreme Court's landmark 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, allowing defendants to challenge their convictions over racially motivated juror strikes. "That rule was suspect when it was announced, and I am even less confident of it today," Justice Thomas said.

An attorney for Flowers celebrated Friday's ruling. "This is a victory for everyone," Sheri Lynn Johnson of Cornell Law School, who argued the case in March, said in a statement.

"We hope that the state of Mississippi will finally disavow Doug Evans' misconduct, decline to pursue yet another trial, and set Mr. Flowers free," she said.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, meanwhile, left the door open for a seventh trial, saying in a statement, "It will be the duty of the district attorney to re-evaluate the case. If the decision is to retry the case, I am confident the court's guidance will be followed."

'The Numbers Speak Loudly'

The case revolves around the quadruple murder that took place in the Tardy Furniture store in the small town of Winona in 1996. The state charged Flowers the following year. 

At his first trial, Evans, Winona's lead prosecutor since 1991, used up five of 12 peremptory strikes on the only prospective black jurors, and the case was heard in front of an all-white jury that convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, according to the majority opinion.

On appeal, Flowers said that the strikes were illegally motivated by racism under the Supreme Court's Batson ruling. The state high court reversed the decision, but did so on prosecutorial misconduct grounds unrelated to Flowers' Batson claims, Justice Kavanaugh explained in the opinion.

The second trial was nearly the same story, with Evans striking all five prospective black jurors. The trial court disallowed one of those strikes and the case was heard by a jury with 11 white people and one black person. A conviction and death sentence followed, and the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed again for prosecutorial misconduct, Friday's opinion said.

In the third trial, Evans used up each of his 15 peremptory strikes against black jurors, leaving the same racial makeup for the jury as the previous one. Flowers was once again convicted and sentenced to death. This time, however, the state high court said the jury strikes were discriminatory and reversed.

In the fourth trial, a jury of seven white people and five black people could not reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. The racial makeup of the fifth trial is unknown, but it too ended in a mistrial.

Friday's decision involved the sixth trial. There, Evans' juror strikes left only one black juror on a panel that would once again convict Flowers and sentence him to death. On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court accepted the state's "race-neutral reasons" for its jury strikes and disregarded Evans' documented history of excluding black jurors in the case.

"The numbers speak loudly," Justice Kavanaugh said in his opinion, reversing the state high court's decision, pointing out that the state had tried to use peremptory strikes against every single one of the 36 black prospective jurors over the course of the first four trials.

"The state appeared to proceed as if Batson had never been decided," Justice Kavanaugh said. The trial court, meanwhile, "did not sufficiently account for the history when considering Flowers' Batson claim."

Justice Kavanaugh also noted that there was "dramatically disparate questioning and investigation of black prospective jurors and white prospective jurors," which he said "strongly suggest[s] that the state was motivated in substantial part by a discriminatory intent."

Thomas' Bitter Dissent

The case triggered a strong reaction in Justice Thomas, who uttered his first question at oral arguments in three years when it was heard in late March. His straightforward factual question to Flowers' attorney belied the full-throated dissent to come, which accused the majority of breaking its rules for when and how it decides cases.

"Under our ordinary certiorari criteria, we would never review this issue," he said in his dissent. "There is no disagreement among the lower courts on this question, and the question is not implicated by this case — the Mississippi Supreme Court did consider the prosecutor's history."

Justice Thomas speculated that the court only took the case because it received a "fair amount of media attention." Flowers' case was the subject of an award-winning podcast from American Public Media Reports, which uncovered that Evans' office in Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District was 4.5 times more likely to strike black people from a jury than white people over the 225 trials during his tenure. APM reported that Evans is up for re-election to a four-year term in November and is running unopposed.

"The media often seeks 'to titillate rather than to educate and inform,'" charged Justice Thomas, who himself was the subject of a media firestorm over sexual harassment allegations during his confirmation hearings 28 years ago.

He then went through a lengthy analysis defending the state's allegedly race-neutral reasons for striking overwhelmingly black jurors. "Any competent prosecutor would have struck the jurors struck below," he said.

"The majority apparently thinks that it is in a better position than the trial court to judge the tone of the questions and answers, the demeanor of the attorneys and jurors, the courtroom dynamic, and the culture of Winona, Mississippi," he said.

Civil rights groups were encouraged by the majority's decision to lift Flowers' conviction Friday. 

"This decision should sound an alarm for those prosecutors across the country who continue to allow racial bias to taint jury selection when making decisions about use of their peremptory challenges," said Kristin Clarke of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Counsel for the state could not be reached Friday for comment.

Flowers was represented by Sheri Lynn Johnson of Cornell University Law School.

The state was represented by Jason Davis of the Mississippi Attorney General's Office.

The case is Flowers v. Mississippi, case number 17-9572, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.