Washington: The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the murder conviction of death-row inmate Curtis Flowers. In a 7-2 decision released Friday morning, the court ruled that District Attorney Doug Evans intentionally removed African-Americans during jury selection at Flowers’ 2010 trial, his sixth for the murders of four people at a Mississippi furniture store.
Though he’s prevailed in his appeal, Flowers will remain incarcerated while he waits to hear if his 23-year-long legal odyssey has finally come to an end or whether he’ll face an unprecedented seventh trial for the murders at Tardy Furniture. The Flowers case was the subject of the second season of the podcast In the Dark. Reporters spent a year in Mississippi investigating the case and uncovered compelling evidence of Flowers’ innocence that helped bring the case to national prominence.
When news of the Supreme Court decision reached Curtis’ father, Archie, at his home in Winona, Mississippi, on Friday, he was thrilled.
About an hour after the decision came down, Archie’s phone buzzed. It was a call from Curtis in Parchman prison. He’d heard about the ruling from his lawyer. Archie’s face broke into a giant smile as he talked to his son. After discussing the news for a few minutes, the two men, who are both gospel singers, dove into a long conversation about music.
“I know he was happy because when I go visit him, he didn’t have no joy like that,” Archie said. “He’s talking loud, talking about singing. … He’s happy.”
The majority opinion, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, holds that Evans violated Flowers’ rights by flouting a 1986 precedent, set forth in Batson v. Kentucky, that it’s unconstitutional to strike jurors because of their race. It reverses a 2017 decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court that denied Flowers’ appeal.
The court said that Evans’ removal of an African-American woman — Carolyn Wright — was motivated in part by “discriminatory intent” and that Mississippi courts had erred in dismissing that conclusion.
Kavanaugh was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Kavanaugh wrote that the removal of Wright from the jury, taken alone, might not have been enough to overturn the conviction. But along with the remarkable history of the case — including Evans’ strikes of nearly every black prospective juror in Flowers’ six trials and asking them far more questions — the court concluded that Evans’ strike of Wright was influenced by race.
Therefore, he wrote, it was unconstitutional.
“Our review of the history of the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ first four trials strongly supports the conclusion that his use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Kavanaugh wrote.
“Stretching across Flowers’ first four trials, the State employed its peremptory strikes to remove as many black prospective jurors as possible. The State appeared to proceed as if Batson had never been decided.
“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 majority cut across ideological lines. Alito, one of the court’s most conservative justices, not only joined the majority decision but wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the court, dissented in the case, joined in part by Neil Gorsuch. When the case was argued before the court in March, Thomas asked a question, the first from him in three years.
In his dissent, Thomas wrote that the court should have never taken the case let alone overturned it. He said the majority has proceeded to “second-guess the factual findings of two different courts on matters wholly collateral to the merits of the conviction.”
Moreover, Flowers presented no evidence of purposeful race discrimination by Evans, Thomas wrote. He also said the African-Americans struck from the jury pool were a “race-neutral” decision.
Thomas also harshly suggested media attention to the matter may have played a role in swaying the opinion of the majority. “Any appearance that this Court gives closer scrutiny to cases with significant media attention will only exacerbate these problems and undermine the fairness of criminal trials,” Thomas wrote.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will set off a chain of events, though not one that’s guaranteed to end in Flowers’ freedom. And it portends no further penalty for Evans, though this is the third time a court has ruled that he discriminated in jury selection in Flowers’ case.
In the weeks ahead, an order erasing Flowers’ four capital sentences will make its way to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Once it does, Flowers will be moved off death row and out of Mississippi’s notorious Parchman prison.
He’ll likely be transferred to the county jail near Winona, where the crime took place in 1996. He’ll be held in pretrial detention, since the four murder indictments handed down years ago by a local grand jury still stand against him.
Flowers’ lawyers can ask for their client to be released on bail, but Evans can oppose it and the judge, likely to still be Joey Loper, can deny it. Bail is granted so rarely in capital cases in Mississippi that Flowers’ lawyers may not even request it; they haven’t always in the past.
The most important question, of course, is whether Evans will try Flowers a seventh time. The answer to that may take months to become clear and is almost entirely up to Evans himself. He told In the Dark reporters in January that a seventh trial is a possibility. But Evans has other options too: He can offer Flowers one of a range of plea deals or he can ask for the charges against Flowers to be dismissed entirely. If the charges are dropped, Flowers would be released.
Evans will soon hear from Flowers’ lawyers, who are likely to try to dissuade him from pressing ahead with a trial and may file a motion asking Judge Loper to remove Evans from the case altogether. Evans may also receive guidance from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office, which drew bewilderment from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito for not having intervened in the case earlier.
Evans has said nothing publicly to indicate that he has concerns about the strength of the state’s case against Curtis Flowers or his own ability to try it. In the Dark reporters asked him in January if he thought the prosecution, which has stretched over 23 years, might benefit from a fresh perspective.
“No,” Evans said. “They’ve had numerous different juries that all agree.”
Meanwhile, the prospect of a seventh trial was on the mind of at least one Supreme Court justice. At the end of his dissenting opinion, Thomas wrote, “If the Court’s opinion today has a redeeming quality, it is this: The State is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again.”