WASHINGTON – After six trials for the same crime, a death-row inmate from Mississippi reached the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday and appeared headed for yet another chance.
The justices spent an hour debating whether Curtis Flowers’ conviction in 2010 for the execution-style murders of four people in Winona, Miss., was tainted by a prosecutor’s rejection of potential black jurors. By the end of the hour-long oral argument, most justices seemed sure that it was.
That would be unconstitutional under a Supreme Court precedent that preceded all six trials, three of which were reversed because of misconduct by the prosecutor. Two others resulted in hung juries.
“We can’t take the history out of the case,” Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito called the case “troubling,” with an “unusual and really disturbing history.” He said Evans’ past conduct left “reasons to be suspicious.”
And those were just the conservatives.
All four of the high court’s liberal justices seemed swayed by the jury selection tactics of District Attorney Doug Evans, who handled all six of Flowers’ trials dating back two decades. Overall, 41 of 42 potential black jurors were struck.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor said previous cases of prosecutorial misconduct and improper jury selection tactics showed “this man’s passion for this case.”
But Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch expressed concern that any decision declaring the jury selection in Flowers’ sixth trial unconstitutional might affect future cases without an equally troubling history.
And Associate Justice Clarence Thomas – asking questions for the first time in more than three years – noted that defense attorneys in the last trial only struck potential white jurors.
While the question of Flowers’ guilt or innocence wasn’t before the justices, the subject of the oral argument – racial discrimination – has dominated his case from the start. Four juries that returned guilty verdicts were either all-white or had few black jurors. Two trials with more black jurors ended in mistrials.
Flowers was first found guilty of killing four employees at a furniture store in 1997 and was sentenced to die. But three years later, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out the conviction, leading to the decades-long legal saga.
Twice before, judges have found that Evans eliminated potential black jurors because of their race. In one case, the Mississippi Supreme Court cited “as strong a prima facie case of racial discrimination as we have ever seen.”
Even Jason Davis, arguing the case for the Mississippi attorney general’s’ office, acknowledged that “the history in this case is troubling.” But he argued that none of the juror candidate eliminations in the sixth trial were tainted.
Among the justices, Alito came closest to defending Evans’ tactics in that trial. Without taking into consideration the prosecutor’s past behavior, Alito said, most of the 2010 jury eliminations appeared legitimate. Some blacks in the jury pool knew the Flowers family, for instance, or had debts at the furniture store where the murders were committed.
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Now 48, Flowers is being held at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman prison.
Flowers had worked at Tardy Furniture for a short time before being fired, and Evans portrayed him as a disgruntled employee out for revenge. He had no prior criminal record.
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When the four workers were discovered, $400 was missing from a cash drawer. A state police investigator testified that $235 was hidden in Flowers’ headboard. Other evidence included a bloody shoe print, gunpowder residue, eyewitness accounts and a gun allegedly stolen from Flowers’ uncle’s car that was never recovered.
Jailhouse informants who fingered Flowers later recanted, and an investigation by APM Reports’ podcast, “In The Dark,” called into question several other elements of the prosecution’s case.
The podcast, which spent a year investigating the case, found that over a 15-year period ending in 2017, the district attorney eliminated blacks from juries at more than four times the rate of whites.
Sheri Lynn Johnson, who argued Flowers’ case Wednesday, said Evans opened the most recent trial “with an unconstitutional end in mind – to seat as few African American jurors as he could.”
Contributing: Alissa Zhu, Mississippi Clarion Ledger