Citing Bias, Supreme Court Tosses Murder Conviction of Black Man

‘In six trials combined, the state employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of 42 black prospective juror…’

Citing Bias, Supreme Court Tosses Murder Conviction of Black Man

Curtis Flowers

(David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times) WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the murder conviction of an African American man from Mississippi who had been tried six times by nearly all-white juries.

The justices, by a 7-2 vote, said the prosecutor had wrongly excluded potential black jurors because of their race.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh speaking for the court, said the prosecutor had displayed a pattern of racial bias in selecting jurors in the case of defendant Curtis Flowers.

“The numbers speak loudly. In six trials combined, the state employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of 42 black prospective jurors,” he said.

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Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M Gorsuch dissented.

The ruling does not mean Flowers will go free after 22 years in prison. And the court’s decision does not say or suggest that Flowers is not guilty of shooting and killing four people in a furniture store where he briefly worked.

But the ruling is a rebuke to Doug Evans, a white district attorney who insisted on personally prosecuting the case against Flowers in 2010 despite five earlier reversals.

State prosecutors must decide whether to retry Flowers for a seventh time.

The Supreme Court has struggled with how to remove racial bias in the selection of jurors, because both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are usually given the freedom to exclude an equal number of potential jurors based on the hunch they will be unfavorable to their side.

In this case, in which a black defendant was accused of killing a white store owner and three employees, the prosecutor used his “peremptory challenges” to exclude African Americans. The defense attorney not surprisingly used his challenges to exclude white jurors.

In a 1986 case called Batson vs. Kentucky, the court said that if a prosecutor shows a pattern of excluding jurors based on their race, the trial judge should intervene and decide whether the prosecutor had a legitimate and non-racial reason for excluding an individual.

The Flowers case began on July 16, 1996 when four people were found shot and dying in Tardy’s Furniture story in the small town of Winona, Miss. The victims included a co-owner Bertha Tardy. When police contacted her husband, who was at home in a wheelchair, he said his wife had voiced fears of Flowers. He had worked at the store for four days in early July, but was accused of dropping and damaging goods. In a phone conversation, Bertha Tardy told Flowers he was no longer employed and that she was withholding $82 from his paycheck to cover the damage.

On the same morning of the murders, police were called to a nearby garment factory where Doyle Simpson reported that someone had broken into parked car and stolen a .38 caliber pistol. The murder weapon was never found, but it too was a .38 caliber pistol. An employee reported seeing someone, later identified as Flowers, standing near the parked car earlier that morning. Simpson later testified that Flowers was his nephew and knew that he carried a gun. About $300 was missing from the store, and a police investigator found $235 hidden in a room where Flowers slept.

Flowers left the town in September and moved to Texas. But he was returned and tried the next year in Tupelo for the murder of Bertha Tardy. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the state Supreme Court set aside the conviction because the prosecutor had introduced evidence of the other murders. Flowers was retried in Gulfport with the same result. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the state high court ruled again that the prosecutor had erred by introducing other evidence.

The third trial took place in Winona, and Flowers was convicted of the four murders and sentenced to death in 2004. The state high court set aside that conviction on the grounds that the prosecutor had wrongly excluded black jurors. A fourth and fifth trial ended in mistrials because the jurors could not agree on a unanimous verdict. The Constitution forbids trying a defendant again after he has been acquitted of a crime, but the ban on “double jeopardy” did not spare Flowers because he was not acquitted.

In 2010, the prosecutor tried him again. Flowers was convicted of all four murders and sentenced to death by a jury with 11 whites and one black person. This time, the state’s high court upheld the conviction, including the selection of the jury.

But the Supreme Court agreed in November to review the case of Flowers vs. Mississippi.

©2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.