Curtis Flowers: Death row conviction quashed over racial bias

Dale Gerstenslager  AP FILE
Curtis Giovanni Flowers left listens to testimony in his third capital murder trial in Winona Miss. Feb. 6 2004

Dale Gerstenslager AP FILE Curtis Giovanni Flowers left listens to testimony in his third capital murder trial in Winona Miss. Feb. 6 2004

The Supreme Court held on Friday that a black MS death row inmate should get a new trial, saying that the prosecutor who tried him six times for murder engaged in unconstitutional racial discrimination when striking African-American jurors from the panel. "I think they should let him go period", Archie Flowers, Curtis Flowers' brother, told Mississippi's Clarion Ledger.

The Supreme Court decision in Flowers v. MS reverses the conviction of Curtis Flowers, who was convicted of a 1996 quadruple murder at a furniture store.

Now it's up to the state of MS whether to try him for a seventh time.

What happened in the trials?

"The state's relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury". The fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials.

Flowers was found guilty in four of the six trials - the first three of which were overturned by MS appellate courts due to prosecutorial misconduct.

While prosecutors and defense lawyers are allowed to use what are called peremptory challenges to eliminate potential jurors they are not allowed to do so on the basis of race. He said it broke no new legal ground in dismissing the conviction and death sentence of Curtis Flowers, but reinforced the court's rulings about when a prosecutor's bias eliminated a potential juror.

During that time the state Supreme Court three times threw out his murder conviction for prosecutorial misconduct.

Kavanaugh and Gorsuch have found themselves on opposite sides of several rulings this year, despite Democratic predictions that the pair would harden a conservative bloc on the nation's highest court.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that prosecutor Doug Evans-who oversaw all six trials-violated Flowers' constitutional rights when he sought to keep African-Americans off of the jury.

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In his decision, Kavanaugh said: "The numbers speak loudly".

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

Lawyers for Flowers had argued before the Supreme Court that district attorney Doug Evans, who prosecuted all six cases and is white, rejected potential black jurors in what amounted to racial discrimination.

What did the dissent say?

He also noted the majority did not dispute the guilty verdict, or the impartiality of the jury - just the prosecutor's conduct.

"Today's decision 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", he wrote.

Justice Gorsuch noted that the state of MS is "perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again".

The murders occurred on 16 July 1996 in Winona, Mississippi, a small town with a population of around 5,000 that is 53% black and 46% white.

The court did not rule on whether or not he was guilty of murdering Tardy Furniture store owner Bertha Tardy, 59, and three employees, Carmen Rigby, 45, Robert Golden, 42, and Derrick Stewart, 16, in 1996 and instead concentrated on the fact that it was racially prejudiced and against the constitution. Multiple witnesses saw Flowers in the vicinity of the store. Almost $300 was found missing after the killings. He had no criminal record before the conviction. Prosecutors never found a murder weapon or any physical evidence tying him to the scene.

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