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Civil Rights

Supreme Court Hears Inmate’s Oral Arguments Regarding Jury Selection

— March 29, 2019

Curtis Flowers underwent six trials and was ultimately convicted of murder. However, the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments regarding the prosecutor’s jury selection.

The Supreme Court recently heard an oral argument in the case of Curtis Flowers, an African-American death-row inmate in Mississippi who was convicted by a jury that included just one African-American juror.  The inmate, through his attorney, presented the argument that the jury selection violates his constitutional rights to a fair trial, especially since the lead prosecutor had a long history of eliminating African-American jurors.   After an hour of oral arguments at least five justices seemed to agree with him.

Trial attorneys on both sides have a certain number of “peremptory strikes,” which they can use to remove jurors without reason. In 1986, in a case called Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors cannot use these strikes to remove jurors based on race.

It was the sixth time Flowers had been tried for the 1996 murders of four people in a Mississippi furniture store when he went to trial in 2010.  He was convicted and sentenced to death at the first two, but the court’s decisions were reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court over misconduct on the part of lead prosecutor Doug Evans.

Supreme Court Hears Inmate's Oral Arguments Regarding Jury Selection
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Evans then served as the lead prosecutor at the next four trials as well and Flowers was again convicted and sentenced to death during the third round, but the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction again, ruling Evans had “violated Batson when he used all fifteen of his peremptory strikes to remove African-American members of the jury pool.”

The jury deadlocked during the fourth and five rounds.  At Flowers’ sixth trial, Evans allowed the first of six potential African-American jurors to be seated on the jury, but then he struck the remaining five.  The jury, therefore, consisted of eleven white jurors and one African-American juror.  Flowers was sentenced to death.

Attorney Sheri Johnson, supporting Flowers, told the justices the “only plausible interpretation of all of the evidence viewed cumulatively is that Doug Evans began jury selection in the sixth trial with an unconstitutional end in mind: to seat as few African American jurors as he could.”

Much of the oral argument was spent on the specifics of the sixth trial only.  After presenting the case and answering the justice’s questions, Johnson apparently felt confident enough to forgo her four minutes of rebuttal time.  Then, Justice Clarence Thomas wanted to know whether Flowers’ trial lawyer had used any of her peremptory strikes – and, if so, what was the race of the jurors she struck.  Johnson responded the trial lawyer had only used her strikes to remove white jurors adding that “her motivation is not the question here.  The question is the motivation of Doug Evans.”

Overall, by the end of the session it seemed Flowers had support not only from the court’s four liberal justices but also from Kavanaugh and Roberts.  Kavanaugh agreed, “We can’t take the history out of the case.”  If this is indeed true, it would mean he secured the five votes needed to reverse the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in the state’s favor.  A final decision in the case is expected sometime this summer.


Argument Analysis: Justices seem receptive to inmate’s juror-discrimination claims

Six trials for same murders: Supreme Court frowns on racial jury selection tactics of Mississippi prosecutor

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