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Court tosses Mississippi man’s murder conviction after 6 trials

This Aug. 3, 2017 photo provided by Mississippi Department of Corrections shows Curtis Flowers, who's murder case has gone to trial six times. Supreme Court justices are again considering how to keep prosecutors from removing African-Americans from criminal juries for racially biased reasons, this time in a case involving a Mississippi death row inmate who has been tried six times for murder. (Mississippi Department of Corrections via AP)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is throwing out the murder conviction and death sentence for a black man in Mississippi because of a prosecutor’s efforts to keep African Americans off the jury. The defendant already has been tried six times and now could face a seventh trial.

The court’s 7-2 decision Friday says the removal of black prospective jurors violated the rights of inmate Curtis Flowers.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court’s majority opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

In Flowers’ sixth trial, the jury was made up of 11 whites and one African American. District Attorney Doug Evans struck five black prospective jurors.

In the earlier trials, three convictions were tossed out, including one when the prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury. In the second trial, the judge chided Evans for striking a juror based on race. Two other trials ended when jurors couldn’t reach unanimous verdicts.

“The numbers speak loudly,” Kavanaugh said in a summary of his opinion that he read in the courtroom, noting that Evans had removed 41 of the 42 prospective black jurors over the six trials. “We cannot ignore that history.”

In dissent, Thomas called Kavanaugh’s opinion “manifestly incorrect” and wrote that Flowers presented no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination.”

In the course of selecting a jury, lawyers can excuse a juror merely because of a suspicion that a particular person would vote against their client. Those are called peremptory strikes, and they have been the focus of the complaints about discrimination.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986 set up a system by which trial judges could evaluate claims of discrimination and the race-neutral explanations by prosecutors.

Flowers has been in jail more than 22 years, since his arrest after four people were found shot to death in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, in July 1996.

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