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Racism in the Courts: Six Tries, Multiple Errors

After spending more than ten years in jail without a formal sentence, Curtis Flowers now can point to another unenviable distinction – he’s the first person in U.S. history subjected to six murder trials for the same crime.

Two of the five previous trials of this Mississippi man charged with the 1996 murder of four people in the rural town of Winona ended in jury deadlocks. State courts voided Flowers’ three convictions, each time citing outrageous misconduct by prosecutors.

One instance of prosecutorial error in the tortured Flowers trial saga involved biased jury selection procedure so egregious that Mississippi’s Supreme Court tagged it the worst case of “racial discrimination we have ever seen…” – an extraordinary declaration considering that state’s history of over-the-top racism.

The fact that prosecutors flogged Flowers with racially bigoted jury selection practices exposes once again an oily injustice that has befouled court proceedings in the Gulf States and beyond for nearly two centuries.

The U.S. Supreme Court finally barred prosecutors from blatantly biased jury selection practices in its 1986 Batson ruling. However, “illegal racial discrimination in jury selection remains widespread” according to a recent report by the Equal Justice Initiative that examined practices in eight southern states.

Many blacks sit on death rows in those eight states stretching from Florida to Arkansas, convicted by all-white juries despite many of those capital convictions occurring in counties with majority black populations.

“Research suggests that, compared to diverse juries, all-white juries tend to spend less time deliberating, make more errors, and consider fewer perspectives,” the EJI report stated. The Montgomery, Ala. Based EJI provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair treatment in the legal system.

The all-white jury in that Flowers trial criticized by Mississippi’s Supreme Court deliberated just a few hours, following six days of testimony, before issuing a guilty verdict and death sentence.

The prosecutor during that Flower’s trial used all 15 of his peremptory challenges to exclude African-Americans.

That prosecutor, for example, rejected two black women for not strongly supporting the death penalty while he accepted two white women whose death penalty postures were “nearly indistinguishable” from the excluded blacks the
Mississippi high court determined in that 2007 ruling.

In that ruling the Mississippi Supreme Court warned prosecutors in that Deep South state that their persistence in “racially profiling jurors” would force that court to abolish the current jury selection system.

The EJI report, that included quotes from the Mississippi Supreme Court's 2007 Flowers case ruling, credited supreme courts in the studied states with overturning convictions tainted by discriminatory jury selection practices.

However, the report also criticized lower court judges in those states for blithely accepting specious explanations from prosecutors defending their exclusions as race-neutral lacking discriminatory intent.

A Louisiana judge allowed a prosecutor to exclude a black because that prosecutor felt the potential juror looked like a drug dealer while a South Carolina judge backed a prosecutor who proclaimed a potential black juror “shucked and jived” as he walked.

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