High court again eyes reasons for removing black jurors

 

March 19, 2019

 


This Aug. 3, 2017 photo provided by Mississippi Department of Corrections shows Curtis Flowers, who’s murder case has gone to trial six times. Supreme Court justices are again considering how to keep prosecutors from removing African-Americans from criminal juries for racially biased reasons, this time in a case involving a Mississippi death row inmate who has been tried six times for murder. (Mississippi Department of Corrections via AP) AP

 

By JEFF AMY And MARK SHERMAN, The Associated Press

 

JACKSON, Miss. – Curtis Flowers has been jailed in Mississippi for 22 years, even as prosecutors couldn’t get a murder conviction against him to stick through five trials.

Three convictions were tossed out and two other juries couldn’t reach unanimous verdicts.

This week, the Supreme Court will consider whether his conviction and death sentence in a sixth trial should stand or be overturned for a familiar reason: because prosecutors improperly kept African-Americans off the jury.

The justices on Wednesday will examine whether District Attorney Doug Evans’ history of excluding black jurors should figure in determining if Evans again crossed a line when he struck five African-Americans from the jury that most recently convicted Flowers of killing four people.

In overturning Flowers’ third conviction, the Mississippi Supreme Court called Evans’ exclusion of 15 black prospective jurors “as strong a prima facie case of racial discrimination as we have seen” in challenges to jury composition. This time around, though, the state’s high court has twice rejected Flowers’ claims, even after being ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to take another look.

Wednesday’s arguments at the high court are the latest stop on a twisting path that began on July 16, 1996. That’s when four people were found dead inside Tardy Furniture in downtown Winona. Shot in the head were 59-year-old owner Bertha Tardy and three employees — 45-year-old Carmen Rigby, 42-year-old Robert Golden and 16-year-old Derrick “Bobo” Stewart.

It was months before officials arrested and charged Curtis Flowers for the murder. Prosecutors say Flowers was a disgruntled former employee who sought revenge against Tardy because she fired him and withheld most of his pay to cover the cost of merchandise he damaged. Nearly $300 was found missing after the killings.

Defence lawyers, though, say witness statements and physical evidence against Flowers are too weak to convict him. A jailhouse informant who claimed Flowers had confessed to him recanted in recorded telephone conversations with American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast. There’s a separate appeal pending in state court questioning Flowers’ actual guilt, citing in part evidence that reporters for “In the Dark” detailed.

Flowers, now 48, has been imprisoned at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman since 1997, following his first conviction. That and two subsequent convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Then two hung juries couldn’t reach verdicts. Finally, Evans won conviction in Flowers’ sixth trial, in 2010, the case at issue here.

The first two cases were overturned in part because Evans impermissibly introduced evidence relating to all four deaths in cases where Flowers was on trial for killing only one person. In the second trial, Evans got into trouble for striking black jurors, with a judge overruling one of the strikes. Then, the state Supreme Court overturned the third verdict, again citing racial bias in removing jurors. Lawyers for Flowers argue the guilty verdict from the sixth trial should be tossed for the same reason, noting Evans has overwhelmingly used his ability to strike individual jurors to remove black people.

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