The US Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a black inmate on death row in Mississippi, citing a prosecutor’s exclusion of black jurors.
The justices ruled that prosecutors in the trials of Curtis Flowers unconstitutionally removed African-American jurors from selection.
Flowers, 49, has been tried six times for the 1996 murders of four furniture store workers in Winona, Mississippi.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented in the 7-2 vote.
Flowers’ case ended with a mistrial twice. In three trials, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the decision due to “numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct”, including discriminating against black jurors.
The same prosecutor, who is white, has tried Flowers six times.
In this sixth trial prosecutors disallowed five of six black jurors. Flowers argued that prosecutors were again discriminating on basis of race.
But the Mississippi Supreme Court allowed the conviction to stand – a ruling the Supreme Court has now reversed.
What did the Supreme Court decision say?
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion.
In addition to challenging most potential black jurors, “the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors”, Justice Kavanaugh wrote.
In the sixth trial, prosecutors used five of six peremptory strikes against potential black jurors, so that only one African-American sat on the panel.
One black juror eliminated by prosecutors, Carolyn Wright, was “similarly situated to white prospective jurors who were not struck by the State”, said the majority ruling.
“All of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not ‘motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent’,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the case was far from ordinary and as such, the jury selection process could not be analysed as if it were a typical proceeding.
“In light of all that had gone before, it was risky for the case to be tried once again by the same prosecutor in Montgomery County.”
What did the dissenting justices say?
But Justice Clarence Thomas, who penned the dissent, accused his fellow justices of prolonging the “nightmare” of the victims’ families.
The case spurred Justice Thomas, the only African-American justice, to speak in court for the first time since 2016.
He said that “any competent prosecutor would have exercised the same strikes as the State did in this trial”.
“The Court today does not dispute that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flowers or that he was tried by an impartial jury,” Justice Thomas wrote.
“Instead, the Court vacates Flowers’ convictions on the ground that the state courts clearly erred in finding that the State did not discriminate based on race when it struck Carolyn Wright from the jury.”
“The only clear errors in this case are committed by today’s majority… the Court almost entirely ignores – and certainly does not refute – the race-neutral reasons given by the State for striking Wright and four other black prospective jurors,” Justice Thomas added.
He noted that the defence had also used peremptory strikes to remove potential white jurors.
“If the Court’s opinion today has a redeeming quality, it is this: The State is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again.”
What happened in the case?
The murders occurred on 16 July 1996 in Winona, Mississippi, a small town with a population of around 5,000 that is 53% black and 46% white. The state of Mississippi has the worst civil rights record in the US.
Bertha Tardy, Robert Golden, Derrick Stewart and Carmen Rigby were shot and killed at the Tardy Furniture Store. Three of the four victims were white, one was black.
Flowers had worked at the store, but had recently been fired. The store owner reportedly withheld his pay after firing him, and close to $300 (£236) was missing from the store after the murders.
He did not have an alibi for the morning of the murders, but had no prior criminal record. Eyewitness accounts and evidence at the scene were contested.