Criminal Justice

Supreme Court Hears Case of Man Tried Six Times for Same Crime

The justices are considering if the prosecutor was racially biased in keeping African-Americans off the jury.


Leah Millis/REUTERS/Newscom

One crime, six trials, three tossed convictions, two hung juries, a lot of prosecutorial misconduct, and a man on death row. Those are the dizzying statistics surrounding the case of Curtis Flowers, who is currently awaiting execution for a crime he says he did not commit.

Flowers has been tried six times for the 1996 slaying of four individuals in Winona, Mississippi. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in his case last month, tasked with deciding if District Attorney Doug Evans discriminated against potential African-American jurors during Flowers' 2010 trial. Evans used his peremptory challenges—which strike would-be jurors without explanation—to exclude five out of six African-Americans from the final panel.

Racial diversity on juries can be pivotal in ensuring a fair trial, particularly in a community like Winona, where there are more black than white people. Naturally, a jury of Flowers' peers should reflect the surrounding area, providing an assortment of different life experiences to arrive at a fair verdict (plus, research shows diverse juries are better equipped to reach accurate conclusions).

Flowers' case is a prime example of that: The two trials resulting in hung juries had the greatest number of black jurors.

Evans has prosecuted each trial—spanning from 1997 to 2010—and has used 41 out of 42 peremptory challenges to block African-Americans from serving on the various juries. That move likely conflicts with Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 Supreme Court precedent that prohibits barring a juror based on race alone. And it was Evans' long and troubled track record that seemed most likely to sway the justices in Flowers' favor.

"We can't take the history out of the case," Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said.

Justice Elena Kagan outlined inconsistencies in Evans' questioning toward whites versus his inquiries toward blacks, calling the disparity "staggering." During jury selection in 2010, Evans asked 12 questions to the 11 white jurors who were ultimately impaneled, and asked 145 questions to the five prospective black jurors who were kept off the jury.

Kagan also highlighted a potential black juror named Carolyn Wright who was blocked from serving, even though she expressed support for the death penalty. Prosecutors are known for striking jurors who may not be able to come to an unbiased conclusion: In a capital murder trial—where the state seeks the death penalty—a would-be juror would be disqualified, then, if he or she had a moral opposition to the ultimate punishment. Wright did not, nor did she have ties to the Flowers family.

"Except for her race, you would think that this is a juror that a prosecutor would love when she walks in the door. Isn't she?" Kagan asked.

Evans has committed a slew of prosecutorial infractions, including the use of faulty testimony from Odell Harmon, a jailhouse snitch who falsely implicated Flowers after the state offered him a deal. He has since recanted. That drew mainstream outrage after the release of the second season of "In the Dark," a podcast profiling Flowers's jaw-dropping journey through the legal system.

But it isn't the Supreme Court's responsibility to render a verdict on Flowers' guilt, nor are Evans' other sketchy tactics under their current purview. Regardless, they seem poised to give Flowers yet another chance at justice—one that might ensure he secures a fair trial the seventh time around.