WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared likely to rule in favor of a black Mississippi death row inmate who has been put on trial six times for a 1996 quadruple murder and has accused the lead prosecutor of repeatedly removing black jurors to help secure a conviction.
The U.S. Supreme Court building is pictured in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
The argument in the case involving Curtis Flowers, 48, included the first questions asked from the bench by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s only black member, in three years.
The Flowers case marked the latest dispute to reach the justices over allegations of racial bias in an American criminal justice system in which blacks and other minorities are disproportionately represented in prison populations. Some prosecutors, including in Southern states like Mississippi, have been accused over the decades of trying to ensure predominately white juries for trials of black defendants.
Under a 1986 Supreme Court precedent, people cannot be excluded from serving on a jury because of their race based on the right to a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment and the 14th Amendment promise of equal protection under the law.
Thomas asked several questions toward the end of the argument. The last question Thomas asked came in a February 2016 gun rights case from Maine, as he voiced concern that people convicted of domestic-violence misdemeanors could permanently lose the right to own a firearm.
The high court heard an appeal by Flowers of his 2010 conviction in his sixth trial on charges of murdering four people at the Tardy Furniture store where he previously worked in the small central Mississippi city of Winona.
His lawyers have accused long-serving Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans of engaging in a pattern of removing black jurors that indicates an unlawful discriminatory motive.
“Throughout the half-dozen trials, the prosecution’s persistent exclusion of African Americans from jury service has been an enduring point of contention,” they wrote in a court papers.
Under long-standing law, both prosecutors and defense lawyers can dismiss – or “strike” – a certain number of prospective jurors during the selection process without giving a reason. Evans has given other reasons for striking jurors but Flowers’ lawyers have said those simply masks his real racial motives.
Flowers appealed to the Supreme Court after the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2017 upheld his most recent conviction and death sentence, with his lawyers saying the history of striking black jurors in the prior trials was relevant in reviewing the most recent conviction.
Prosecutors said Flowers was upset with the store owner for firing him and withholding his paycheck to cover the cost of batteries he had damaged before his termination. They have said Flowers returned to the store and committed the killings.
He was convicted of killing: store owner Bertha Tardy, 59; bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, 45; delivery worker Robert Golden, 42; and 16-year-old Derrick Stewart, a part-time employee. All the victims except Golden were white. Each were shot in the head at close range.
His lawyers have said no physical or forensic evidence links Flowers to the crime. Evidence presented by prosecutors included witness testimony, a gun stolen from a Flowers relative on the morning of the crime and an empty shoe box in his home whose shoes would have matched the size and style of a shoe print left at the crime scene.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley