Supreme Court Strikes Down Conviction Of Mississippi Man On Death Row For 22 Years

Jun 21, 2019
Originally published on June 21, 2019 2:47 pm

Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET

The Supreme Court has struck down the conviction of an African American death row inmate who was prosecuted six times for the same crime and by the same prosecutor, a man with a history of racial bias in jury selection.

Writing for the court's 7-2 majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said, "The numbers speak loudly. Over the course of the first four trials, there were 36 black prospective jurors against whom the State could have exercised a peremptory strike. The State tried to strike all 36."

Making the case even more starkly was the fact that the Mississippi town where the murder took place is majority black.

The crime was a horrific one, a quadruple murder at a store in Winona. Months after the crime, police arrested Curtis Flowers, who had no prior criminal record but had once worked at the store. He has been on death row for 22 years.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black justice, dissented from Friday's ruling, joined in part by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

"The majority's opinion is so manifestly incorrect that I must proceed to the merits," Thomas wrote. "Flowers presented no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination by the State in selecting the jury during the trial below."

Thomas added, "If the Court's opinion today has a redeeming quality, it is this: The State is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again. Otherwise, the opinion distorts our legal standards, ignores the record, and reflects utter disrespect for the careful analysis of the Mississippi courts. Any competent prosecutor would have exercised the same strikes as the State did in this trial. And although the Court's opinion might boost its self-esteem, it also needlessly prolongs the suffering of four victims' families. I respectfully dissent."

Curtis Flowers' murder case went to trial six times. He's shown in 2017.
Mississippi Department of Corrections via AP

That's not how the court's seven-justice majority saw it. The majority noted that the Mississippi Supreme Court itself reversed Flowers' convictions in the first three trials, based on the prosecutor's misrepresentation of evidence to the jury and his deliberate elimination of black jurors.

The first trial had an all-white jury; the second and third each had one black juror. In the fourth and fifth trials, where the prosecutor ran out of his limited number of peremptory strikes — meaning strikes for no stated reason — there were more black jurors, and the jury deadlocked. And in the sixth trial, where the prosecutor struck five of the six prospective jurors, there was just one black juror again. In that case, the court observed, the prosecutor asked the five black prospective jurors he struck a total of 145 questions, compared with 12 questions posed to the 11 white jurors who were seated.

It is that conviction that was reversed on Friday. But the Supreme Court made clear that in making its decision it could not ignore the history of this case and its prosecutor.

For decades the court has wrestled with the question of racial discrimination in jury selection, setting down its most rigorous rules in 1986. But policing the way those rules are applied by the lower court has proved problematic, and the court has repeatedly struck down convictions by all-white, or close to all-white, juries.

Flowers' case is anomalous only because of the number of times he was tried by the same prosecutor and the prosecutor's repeated misconduct.

Flowers' story was the subject of the second season of the In the Dark podcast, from American Public Media. "Reporters spent a year in Mississippi investigating the case and uncovered compelling evidence of Flowers' innocence that helped bring the case to national prominence," APM Reports' Parker Yesko and Dave Mann note.

They also reported:

"When news of the Supreme Court decision reached Curtis' father, Archie, at his home in Winona, Mississippi, on Friday, he was thrilled.

"About an hour after the decision came down, Archie's phone buzzed. It was a call from Curtis in Parchman prison. He'd heard about the ruling from his lawyer. Archie's face broke into a giant smile as he talked to his son. After discussing the news for a few minutes, the two men, who are both gospel singers, dove into a long conversation about music.

" 'I know he was happy because when I go visit him, he didn't have no joy like that,' Archie said. 'He's talking loud, talking about singing. ... He's happy.' "

They will be publishing a new episode of the podcast Friday night.

Now, it's up to the state of Mississippi whether to try Flowers for a seventh time.

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We turn now to news out of the Supreme Court. The court has struck down the conviction of an African American death row inmate who was prosecuted six times for the same crime and by the same prosecutor. The Mississippi Supreme Court said three times that the prosecutor had a history of prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias in jury selection. This could determine the fate of a Mississippi man who has been in jail for nearly a quarter of a century. NPR's Nina Totenberg is in our studios to talk more about this.

Hi, Nina.


MARTIN: Explain the case for us.

TOTENBERG: Well, the crime was a horrific crime. It was the murder of four people at a furniture store in Winona, Miss. It's a tiny, 5,000-person town; 53 to 46% white - black-white, so there's a black majority. And Curtis Flowers was arrested. As far as I can tell, there was - you know, there were no eyewitnesses to this crime, at least living. And there wasn't a great DNA kind of case.

MARTIN: Right.

TOTENBERG: And he was - the first - he was convicted three times. Three times, the Mississippi Supreme Court said that the prosecutor had committed prosecutorial misconduct - and not some trivial things, things like lying about evidence that didn't exist and discrimination in the selection of juries.

MARTIN: Then how is he prosecuted three additional times?

TOTENBERG: Well, the next two times, it's the same prosecutor. There are more - in each case, there are more than one black juror. And the jury deadlocks. And then, in the sixth case, there's only one, and he's convicted. And the Mississippi Supreme Court upholds that conviction, and the Supreme Court today reversed the conviction because of jury discrimination.

MARTIN: So this was a 7-2 decision. The dissenters here were Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch. Justice Thomas, I understand, wrote the opinion. He is the only black justice on the court. What did he have to say about this?

TOTENBERG: Well, Justice Thomas has always maintained that discrimination in jury selection is just not something the court should be involved in determining and that it's not for the defense to raise this - that it's only the jurors who can object to being discriminated against. Today, he wrote an opinion for himself and Justice Thomas, and he said - he noted that the court had at least once before had this case before it and sent it back for re-evaluation. And he said that he couldn't see that they should have looked at it a second time. And he said the court's action only encourages the litigation and re-litigation of criminal trials in the media to the potential detriment of all parties, including defendants. The media often seeks to titillate rather than educate and inform. And that's been his position. His dissenting opinion is, like, twice as long as the majority opinion - written, I should say by Justice Kavanaugh.

MARTIN: So what does this mean for the man at the center of it all, Curtis Flowers? Does he go free?

TOTENBERG: No. The - Mississippi can try him again. I don't think they probably can try him in Winona or with that prosecutor. That would not be wise. But if they think that they have a good case, they can try him again. He's been in prison for 22 years. These are tough cases for states to decide when there's an old case to try to see if they have anything that they can persuade a jury that this guy is guilty. And, you know, sometimes, they just have to bite the bullet and say, no, we don't. And we've got to let him go.

MARTIN: We'll see. NPR's Nina Totenberg on the latest decision out of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nina, thank you. We appreciate it.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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