Supreme Court throws out death sentence of Mississippi inmate

The Supreme Court has ruled 7-2 for a Mississippi inmate who alleged that racial discrimination in juror selection biased his murder trials, tossing out his death sentence.

Curtis Flowers, who is currently on death row in Mississippi, claimed that prosecutor Doug Evans repeatedly blocked black individuals from being on the jury for his trials for the murder of four people in a furniture store.


Flowers, who is African American, claimed that Evans stopped every potential black juror from sitting on the panels during his first four trials. Flowers’s fifth trial ended in a mistrial, but the inmate alleges that during a sixth trial, Evans allowed the first qualified black individual to sit on the jury before blocking the rest.

While prosecutors can stop, or strike, a certain number of people from sitting on juries for undisclosed reasons, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that those strikes can’t be used to turn down jurors on the basis of race.

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Flowers’s case gained media attention after it was the subject of the investigative podcast “In the Dark,” by American Public Media.

The oral arguments in the case also made national headlines for different reasons, as Thomas spoke for just the second time in a decade during the arguments.

"The numbers speak loudly," Kavanaugh wrote in the opinion, pointing to prosecutors attempting to strike all 36 potential black jurors during Flowers' first trial alone and continuing that pattern during his following trials.
"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," he wrote.
The justices found that the state prosecutor's actions during Flowers's sixth trial were also indicative of discriminatory actions. During that process, black prospective jurors were questioned significantly more than white prospective jurors.
"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," Kavanaugh wrote.
He added that the "dramatically disparate questioning" of the white and black individuals "can supply a clue that the prosecutor may have been seeking to paper the record and disguise a discriminatory intent."
In the dissenting opinion mostly joined by Gorsuch, Thomas wrote that the "only clear errors in this case are committed by today's majority," calling their ruling "manifestly incorrect."
He argued that the court's majority ignored the reasons beyond race that the black jurors were struck, like knowing Flowers's family or having ties to the furniture store were Flowers allegedly committed the murders.
"Today's decision 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," Thomas wrote.
And in a section of the dissent not joined by Gorsuch, Thomas suggested that the court incorrectly decided the precedent at hand.
"It has forced equal protection principles onto a procedure designed to give parties absolute discretion in making individual strikes," he wrote. "And it has blinded the court to the reality that racial prejudice exists and can affect the fairness of trials."
"If the court's opinion today has a redeeming quality, it is this: The state is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again," Thomas wrote.

Sheri Lynn Johnson, who represented Flowers in the case, called Friday’s ruling “a victory for everyone.”

“Seven members of the court painstakingly analyzed the complex factual record and concluded that Doug Evans discriminated on the basis of race in a decision that reaffirms the importance of racial fairness in the administration of criminal justice, both for the defendant and for the community,” she said in a statement.

And Johnson urged the state to not pursue a seventh trial against Flowers, who has maintained his innocence in the murders, saying that such a move would be “unprecedented.”

“We hope that the state of Mississippi will finally disavow Doug Evans’ misconduct, decline to pursue yet another trial, and set Mr. Flowers free,” the attorney said.
--Updated June 21 at 11:53 a.m.