Cert. granted: November 2, 2018
Argument: March 20, 2019
Decided: June 21, 2019

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Curtis Giovanni Flowers, a Mississippi death row prisoner who has been tried six times for a notorious 1996 quadruple murder in Winona, Mississippi. Three of the first five trials ended in convictions that were overturned on appeal and two trials resulted in hung juries. The lead prosecutor for all six trials was Doug Evans, the District Attorney in Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court District.

In the sixth trial, the defense argued that the prosecutor violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), by discriminating in jury selection on the basis of race. On direct appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court denied relief on Flowers’ Batson claim, affirming Flowers’ conviction and sentence. In 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated and remanded the case “for further consideration in light of Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737 (2016).” On remand, the Mississippi Supreme Court again affirmed, with three justices dissenting. Flowers v. Mississippi, 240 So.3d 1082, 1124 (Miss. 2018). In 2018, the Supreme Court again granted review of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision on the question of “Whether the Mississippi Supreme Court erred in how it applied Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986), in this case.”

On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court overturned Flowers’ conviction, concluding that Evans unconstitutionally discriminated in jury selection during Flowers’ sixth trial. In doing so, the Supreme Court relied in part upon evidence of Evans’ misconduct and exclusion of black jurors in Flowers’ previous trials. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, reviewed the long history of race discrimination in jury selection and the Supreme Court’s cases addressing the constitutional violation inherent in this discriminatory practice. The opinion also focused on the history of Evans’ persistent exclusion of black jurors over the course of Flowers’ six trials. Kavanaugh wrote, “The numbers speak loudly. Over the course of the first four trials, there were 36 black prospective jurors against whom the State could have exercised a peremptory strike. The State tried to strike all 36.” Kavanaugh noted that Evans was found to have discriminated in jury selection in two of the earlier trials. In the sixth trial, Evans accepted the first qualified black potential juror and then struck the five remaining African Americans in the jury pool.

In finding a pattern of racial discrimination, Justice Kavanaugh noted the significance of Evans’ disparate questioning of potential jurors. “The State asked the five black prospective jurors who were struck a total of 145 questions. By contrast, the State asked the 11 seated white jurors a total of 12 questions.” Evans did not ask follow-up questions to white jurors on subject areas that received close attention in questioning black jurors. “The difference in the State’s approaches to black and white prospective jurors was stark.”

Finally, the Court found that Evans treated similar potential jurors differently, striking a black juror with ties to Flowers’ family and defense witnesses while accepting white jurors with the same characteristics. Justice Kavanaugh concluded that “all of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of [a black prospective juror] was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” As a result, the Court overturned Flowers’ conviction.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion emphasizing the extraordinary nature of the case given Evans’ egregious history of racial discrimination. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch in which he challenged the majority’s characterization of the record. In a portion of the dissent not joined by Justice Gorsuch, Justice Thomas challenged the Court’s cases about juror discrimination and claimed that criminal defendants should not be entitled to relief when prosecutors discriminate against jurors on the basis of race.

A study of jury selection in Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court District over the 26-year period from 1992 to 2017 found that Doug Evans’ office struck prospective black jurors at nearly 4½ times the rate it struck white prospective jurors. (Doug Evans has been the District Attorney for the Fifth Circuit Court District for this entire time period.) The study, conducted by American Public Media, in association with its podcast series, In the Dark, looked at 225 trials and the strikes or acceptances of more than 6,700 jurors.

You can read case-related documents on the Supreme Court website.