Supreme Court Debates Racial Discrimination in Mississippi Death Row Case

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The case of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who has been tried six times for the grisly killings of four people at a furniture store in 1996, has reached the Supreme Court due to reports of racial discrimination and prosecutorial malfeasance.

Supreme Court justices spent an hour debating whether Flowers’ 2010 conviction for the execution-style murders was influenced by the rejection of potential Black jurors by Montgomery District Attorney Doug Evans and his office. They agreed that it was. The Supreme Court may rule that rejecting the potential jurors is unconstitutional according to a precedent that preceded all six trials, USA Today reported. Flowers, who has repeatedly said that he did not kill anyone, has been imprisoned for over 20 years at Mississippi State Penitentiary. He was tried between 1997 and 2010, during which time prosecutors depicted Flowers as a “disgruntled employee who wanted revenge because his paycheck had been withheld to offset merchandise he damaged,” the newspaper added.

The victims were 59-year-old Bertha Tardy, 42-year-old Robert Golden, 45-year-old Carmen Rigby, and 16-year-old Derrick Stewart. The latter fought for his life but he died days later. Three of Flowers’ guilty verdicts were overturned but he has never been acquitted of the crime. The fourth and fifth trials ended up in mistrials because the jurors — some of whom were African American — could not agree on a verdict. The sixth verdict, which the Supreme Court is examining, ended in Flowers’ conviction thanks to an all-white jury. To date, Flowers is guilty of homicide.

Flowers’ story gained notoriety with the help of the podcast “In the Dark,” which documented in greater detail how racism permeated the jury selection process. The case even led Justice Clarence Thomas to break a three-year silence by asking whether the defense lawyer in the sixth trial had excluded any jurors, to which the attorney responded in the affirmative, The New York Times reported. “And what was the race of the jurors struck there?” Justice Thomas asked, according to the Times. “White,” Sheri Lynn Johnson, Flowers’ lawyer, replied.

This opens a discussion on Evans’ egregious disregard for Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 ruling which stipulates that prosecutors cannot use peremptory challenges — the exclusion of a potential juror without any explanation — to reject jurors on the basis of race. Despite being rebuked by a judge who overturned Flowers’ third conviction, Evans continued to use peremptory challenges to dismiss prospective Black jurors. “The history of the case prior to this trial is very troubling,” Justice Samuel Alito said, noting that Evans’ record in the Flowers case “is cause for concern and is certainly relevant to the decision that ultimately has to be made in the case.” For some, the Supreme Court is likely to side with Flowers’ claim that he is a victim of racial discrimination.

“I think we have a very strong case,” Johnson said after the hearing, according to APM Reports. “I'm not going to predict what they'll decide. I think they were receptive, and I hope that they will decide that the Mississippi Supreme Court was clearly erroneous in its findings.”


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.