Supreme Court to Review Racially Biased Jury Selection in Mississippi Death Penalty Case


The United States Supreme Court has granted review in the case of Curtis Flowers, who was sentenced to death in Mississippi after prosecutors barred nearly every African American prospective juror from serving on his jury.

Mr. Flowers has been tried six times for the same offense in Winona, Mississippi, in 1996. Each time, district attorney Doug Evans led the prosecution, striking all 10 African American prospective jurors at the first two trials and using all 26 of his allotted strikes against African Americans at the third and fourth trials. (The fifth trial ended in a hung jury.)

The district attorney was twice found to have violated Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 decision in which the Supreme Court prohibited the removal of jurors on the basis of race.

At the sixth trial, the prosecutor accepted the first qualified African American juror, then struck the remaining five. Mr. Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of 11 white people out of an original venire that was 42 percent African American.

He challenged the prosecutor’s strikes on appeal, and a divided Mississippi Supreme Court denied relief after failing to consider Mr. Evans’s extensive record of racially biased jury selection in this case. Mr. Flowers appealed that decision, and the United States Supreme Court sent the case back to the state court for reconsideration.

But the Mississippi Supreme Court, over three dissents, again affirmed, refusing to consider historical evidence of past discrimination and insisting that the prosecutor’s prior Batson violations do not undermine his “race neutral” reasons for striking African Americans in the sixth trial.

Mr. Flowers again appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and on November 2, the Court granted certiorari to consider whether a court must take into account a prosecutor’s history of purposeful racial discrimination when assessing the credibility of his reasons for striking minority jurors.

A study by American Public Media’s In the Dark podcast series found that, during the 26 years that Mr. Evans was district attorney, prosecutors struck prospective Black jurors at nearly four and a half times the rate of white prospective jurors. The series’s second season casts doubt on much of the State’s evidence against Mr. Flowers, who has always maintained his innocence.

As Mr. Flowers’s case demonstrates, nearly 135 years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to eliminate racial discrimination in jury selection, people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race, especially in serious criminal trials and death penalty cases.

EJI’s report, Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy, is the most comprehensive study of racial bias in jury selection since Batson — a decision that has failed to eliminate racially biased jury selection due to cultural inertia, lawyers’ distaste for accusing each other of racism, judges who do not effectively evaluate claims of racial bias, and prosecutors who circumvent the rules in order to achieve a tactical advantage in the courtroom.