Washington Post: Mississippi eroded courts’ credibility

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Washington Post

Declaring that Mississippi prosecutors engaged in a “relentless, determined effort” to exclude blacks from a jury considering the case of alleged killer Curtis Flowers, the Supreme Court ruled Friday that his trial was marred by improper discriminatory intent.

His latest trial, we should say. Flowers has been tried six times, each time by the same lead prosecutor, going back to the mid-1990s. By routinely failing to respect basic principles of nondiscrimination, Mississippi has failed not only in its responsibility to provide Flowers a fair trial but also in its burden to bring timely justice to the victims’ families.

The facts of the Flowers case are jaw-dropping. “In the six trials combined, the state employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors that it could have struck,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. In the first five trials, Mississippi courts found several instances of prosecutorial misconduct. Those that were not overturned in state court ended in mistrials.

Prosecutors accepted a single black juror in Flowers’ sixth trial, but the court noted that they might have done so as part of a strategy to obscure a consistent pattern of discrimination. Indeed, they still struck five of six black potential jurors. During the selection process, prosecutors asked the five black prospective jurors they struck 145 questions, while they asked the 11 white jurors eventually seated a mere 12 questions. The court concluded that there was no innocent explanation, as black prospective jurors were subjected to follow-up questions while white jurors with similar characteristics and relationships were not. Prosecutors investigated the claims of blacks in the jury pool, but not those of white members. The apparent goal: finding “seemingly race-neutral reasons to strike the prospective jurors of a particular race.”

In particular, the prosecutors struck Carolyn Wright, a black prospective juror who had connections to some witnesses and members of Flowers’ family. Yet three white potential jurors had many such connections, too — the killings occurred in a small town — and prosecutors conducted no follow-up questions about their possible conflicts. The state later tried to explain Wright’s exclusion with false assertions about her connections to the defendant’s family, which was not the only instance in which prosecutors relied on apparent falsehoods to justify striking a black potential juror.

When facts such as these pile up, they corrode not only the perception of the criminal justice system’s fairness — but its reality. The court declared decades ago that prosecutors — or, for that matter, defense lawyers — cannot strike jurors because they are black, white or any other race. The same restriction applies to gender. Otherwise, the criminal-justice system would encourage the judging of human beings based on the color of their skin. Some prosecutors are apparently still catching up.

To be clear, it is not the Supreme Court’s responsibility to judge Flowers’ guilt. That adjudication will not happen until Mississippi finally gives him a fair trial.