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Justices Rule for Death Row Inmate in Clash Over Race, Juries (1)

June 21, 2019, 2:09 PMUpdated: June 21, 2019, 7:13 PM

A black death row inmate tried six times for the same crime by the same local prosecutor won his closely-watched U.S. Supreme Court case June 21 on race discrimination in jury selection.

It’s a momentous decision for the man who’s been fighting for decades to beat the charges of a quadruple murder in the small Mississippi town of Winona in 1996 that he swears he never committed.

“We are grateful that the Supreme Court has reversed Curtis Flowers’ conviction,” said Sheri Lynn Johnson, who argued his case to the justices in March.

His previous trials ended either with hung juries or convictions that got overturned on appeal due to various forms of misconduct by District Attorney Doug Evans, who serially eliminated prospective black jurors in Flowers’ trials over the years.

“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, referring to the majority opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Kavanaugh appears to have a keen interest in the topic, having written about it as a law student. He took a tough stance against the state’s position at the oral argument.

Overturning Flowers’ capital conviction, Kavanaugh’s opinion focused on the prosecutor’s “pattern of striking black prospective jurors,” which “persisted from Flowers’ first trial through Flowers’ sixth trial.” In the sixth trial, Evans struck five of six and “engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors,” he wrote.

Taking all of those circumstances into account, “the trial court 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, quoting a prior Supreme Court case.

Peremptory strikes are ones that each side gets to use against prospective jurors without giving reasons. But under the high court’s landmark 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky, lawyers can’t use their strikes for racial reasons. When challenged, lawyers offer race-neutral reasons and judges decide if those reasons are good enough.

“In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground,” Kavanaugh wrote, saying all the opinion does is “enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.”

Now the question is whether the state will try Flowers a seventh time. That would be “unprecedented, and completely unwarranted given both the flimsiness of the evidence against him and the long trail of misconduct that has kept him wrongfully incarcerated all these years,” his lawyer Johnson said.

The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office, which argued the case for the government at the Supreme Court, said it’s “the duty of the district attorney to re-evaluate the case.” Evans’ office, in the state’s Fifth Circuit Court District, said they “have no comment at this time.”

A Victory—But How Big?

At any rate, Johnson said the decision “is a victory for everyone.”

But it’s unclear how many more defendants will benefit directly.

“It’s clearly a step forward,” Ekow N. Yankah, criminal law professor at Cardozo Law in New York, said of the decision, noting the high court has previously given prosecutors great deference when it comes to allegations of race discrimination in jury selection.

But when the court “goes out of its way to say this is an extraordinary case,” Yankah said, “that’s a discouraging signal.” It’s a boon only for “the most egregious cases of repeated racial discrimination that are incredibly well-documented.”

Yet even if no part of the decision is “groundbreaking,” it’s “significant because of how thoughtful the court is to the totality of the circumstances,” said Samuel Spital of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., which filed an amicus brief supporting Flowers.

He said the part of Kavanaugh’s opinion recognizing the significance of disparate questioning of prospective jurors of different races could be helpful to defendants in future cases.

But for all the talk of the case’s exceptional nature, Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent, joined partly by Justice Neil Gorsuch, cast it as prosaic, but for the grisly facts of the murders which he laid out in detail. He said Kavanaugh’s 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.”

Thomas usually asks no questions at oral arguments, but he memorably quizzed Johnson at the end of this one.

In dissent, Thomas accused his colleagues of taking up Flowers’ appeal in the first place “because the case has received a fair amount of media attention.”

Flowers’ saga gained national notoriety thanks to the award-winning APM Reports podcast “In the Dark,” which took an in-depth look at the case.

The case Flowers v. Mississippi, U.S., 17-9572, reversed and remanded 6/21/19.

(Adds detail on opinions, comments about case's implications. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com

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