Court overturns Miss. death row inmate's conviction over discrimination

The Court cited discriminatory practices in the jury selection process in at least five or six separate instances the inmate has been tried


Jessica Schladebeck
New York Daily News

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a black Mississippi death row inmate, citing discriminatory practices in the jury selection process ahead of at least five of the six separate instances he's been tried for a 1996 quadruple murder.

Lawyers for 49-year-old Curtis Flowers, who has been behind bars for more than two decades, have repeatedly argued District Attorney Doug Evans consistently tried to keep black citizens off the jury. Supreme Court Justices agreed with Flowers' legal team on Friday, voting 7-2 that the removal of potential black jurors from the panel robbed the accused killer of his rights.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court's majority opinion and pointed to Flowers' first two trials, when "the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors." In each of these instances, the Mississippi man was sentenced to death in slayings of four furniture store employees.

Three of the victims, all of who were fatally shot, were white.

Prosecutors at the time framed Flowers as a disgruntled employee seeking revenge on his employer, who had fired him and withheld most of his final paycheck.

Both convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which concluded that jurors were turned away "on the basis of race."

"At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black perspective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death," Kavanaugh noted.

The ruling was again overturned by the Supreme Court due to discrimination during jury selection.

Flower's next two trials ended in mistrial. Kavanaugh noted that while there is no available jury information for the fifth trial, the State turned away all 11 black prospective jurors during the selection process for the fourth.

And during his most recent trial, the sixth in a row to be tired by Evans, "the State exercised six peremptory strikes -- five against black jurors." The latest panel also convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, a decision the Mississippi Supreme court would go on to uphold.

"All 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," Kavanaugh wrote.

Overall, Evans had removed 41 out of 42 prospective black jurors over the course of the six trials.

"The numbers speak loudly,"Kavanaugh concluded. "We cannot ignore this history."

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, who is the lone black Supreme Court Justice, made up the two dissenting votes.

Thomas, who broke a three-year stretch of silence on the bench during oral arguments in March, sharply critiqued the court's decision in his dissent.

"The majority builds its decision around the narrative that this case has a long history of race discrimination," he wrote.

"The narrative might make for entertaining melodrama, but it has no basis in the record."

Thomas added the only benefit of the majority's ruling is that it leaves prosecutors "free to convict Curtis Flowers again."

The Supreme Court in 1986 attempted to bar such discriminatory practices with Batson v. Kentucky. The decision gave trial judges the right to evaluate claims of discrimination and the race-neutral explanations by prosecutors -- though it proved a challenge when actually put into practice."

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©2019 New York Daily News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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