Prosecutor removes black jurors from murder trial

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In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Batson vs. Kentucky that racial bias in jury selection violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. A lawyer cannot strike a juror from a case without a “neutral” reason. Batson are held, and defendants suspected of racial bias may file a complaint. More than three decades later, on June 21, the justices again split 7-2 in Flowers Against Mississippi, a case in which a prosecutor routinely excluded black jurors from the six murder trials of Curtis Flowers, a black Mississippian. Mr Flowers was charged after the murders of four furniture store workers in 1996. He was charged with each of the separate murders in the first four trials and the four deaths in ‘ fifth and sixth trial.

The opinion of the majority in Flowers, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, stretched to 31 pages but, as he said, broke “for no new legal reason”. The decision is “just implement[s] and confirm it[s] Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.” The facts are, indeed, extraordinary. In all six trials, Doug Evans, the prosecutor, used peremptory challenges (that a lawyer does not need any reason existence, as opposed to a strike “for cause” which states justification) to eliminate 41 of the 42 proposed black jurors. In the sixth trial, the one at issue in the Flowers, he struck out five of six. In the apparent hope of finding “false grounds for striking them”, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, Mr Evans “engaged in starkly different questioning of black and white jurors”. And he excluded one potential black juror, Carolyn Wright, for reasons that should have led to a challenge to white jurors whose race appeared to be the only one between -relevant difference. Prosecutors said Ms. Wright was hit because she knew some of the witnesses and worked at the same WalMart as Mr. Flowers’ father. But several white jurors also knew players in the trial and faced less questioning and no challenge.

In the first three trials, the Mississippi Supreme Court disciplined Mr. Evans for violating Mr. Flowers’ right to an impartial jury and overturned the conviction. The fourth and fifth trials ended in hung juries, with no verdicts. But the Mississippi supreme court found no problem with Mr. Evans’ conduct the sixth time. In the final trial, there were 26 potential jurors, six black and 20 white. Prosecutors used five of his six peremptory strikes against prospective black jurors, resulting in 11 white jurors and one black juror. When Mr. Flowers challenged the fairness of his trial under Batson, the Mississippi Supreme Court rejected it. The United States Supreme Court then asked the state court to take another look at the case in light of its 2016 decision. Foster v Chatman, other jury verdict – discrimination. After a second review, the Mississippi Supreme Court again sided with the prosecution. But the vote was 5-4, and a dissenting judge said he believed the majority had made a serious mistake. “I cannot conclude that Flowers received a fair trial,” he wrote. The majority is five judges[ed] the constitutional right of prospective jurors to be free from a racially discriminatory selection process”.

After walking through justifications and consequences Batson and the facts of Mr. Flowers’ case, Judge Kavanaugh ruled that the four dissenting justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court were correct. The state’s case against Mr Flowers was “primarily motivated by discriminatory intent”. “Equal justice under the law” – the words carved in marble above the familiar pillars of the Supreme Court’s main entrance – “requires a criminal trial without racial discrimination in the jury selection process”.

Justice Kavanaugh’s detailed opinion drew the votes of Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices. Justice Samuel Alito joined the judgment but wrote separately to emphasize that Flowers “a very unusual case” and “a case of some kind” are likely. If not for the “unique combination of circumstances here”, Justice Alito would have affirmed the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch found no circumstances that warranted asserting Mr. Flowers’ constitutional rights. In a bite-sized 42-page dissent, Justice Thomas detailed the 1996 massacre and blamed his seven colleagues for “needlessly proliferating.[ing] the suffering of four victims’ families” and contempt of the Mississippi state courts. (The majority may have sided with Mr. Flowers, the dissent suggests, to “their self-respect to encourage”.) Looking through the record, Judge Thomas finds no evidence of intent to accuse of racism. “Any prosecutor would have been able to make the same strikes to do and the state did in this trial”, he wrote. In a portion of the dissent that Justice Gorsuch did not join, Justice Thomas attacked Batson himself: the ruling “was suspect when it was announced, and I’m not even so confident about it today”.

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