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FLOWERS v. MISSISSIPPI
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSISSIPPI
No. 17–9572. Argued March 20, 2019—Decided June 21, 2019
Petitioner Curtis Flowers has been tried six separate times for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store.
Flowers is black; three of the four victims were white.
At the first two trials, the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors. In each case, the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, but the convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct.
At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed again,this time concluding that the State exercised its peremptory strikes on the basis of race in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79.
Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials.
At the fourth, the State exercised 11 peremptory strikes—all against black prospective jurors.
No available racial information exists about the prospective jurors in the fifth trial.
At the sixth trial, the State exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated.
Flowers again raised a Batson claim, but the trial court concluded that the State had offered race-neutral reasons for each of the five peremptory strikes. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death.
The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. After this Court vacated that judgment and remanded in light of Foster v. Chatman, 578 U. S. ___, the Mississippi Supreme Court again upheld Flowers’ conviction in a divided 5-to-4 decision. Justice King dissented on the Batson issue and was joined by two other Justices.'
Held: 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 black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Pp. 7–31.
Opinion of the Court
In sum, the State’s pattern of striking black prospective jurors persisted from Flowers’ first trial through Flowers’ sixth trial. In the six trials combined, the State struck 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors it could have struck. At the sixth trial, the State struck five of six. At the sixth trial, moreover, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors. And it engaged in disparate treatment of black and white prospective jurors, in particular by striking black prospective juror Carolyn Wright. '
To reiterate, we need not and do not decide that any one of those four facts alone would require reversal. All that we need to decide, and all that we do decide, is 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 black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. '
In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground.We simply enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case.’
We reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Mississippi, and we remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
Excerpts from Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent…
And now, the majority considers it a point of pride to “break no new legal ground,” ante, at 3, 31, and proceeds to second-guess the factual findings of two different courts on matters wholly collateral to the merits of the conviction. If nothing else, its effort proves the reason behind the rule that we do not take intensively fact-specific cases.
Or perhaps the Court granted certiorari because the case has received a fair amount of media attention. But if so, the Court’s action only encourages the litigation and relitigation of criminal trials in the media, to the potential detriment of all parties—including defendants. The media often seeks “to titillate rather than to educate and inform.”
The Court today does not dispute that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flowers or that he was tried by an impartial jury.
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.
Yet the Court discovers “clear error” based on its own review of a near decade-old record. The majority apparently thinks that it is in a better position than the trial court to judge the tone of the questions and answers, the demeanor of the attorneys and jurors, the courtroom dynamic, and the culture of Winona, Mississippi.
The only clear errors in this case are committed by today’s majority. Confirming that we never should have taken this case, 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.
Two of these prospective jurors knew Flowers’ family and had been sued by Tardy Furniture—the family business of one of the victims and also of one of the trial witnesses. One refused to consider the death penalty and apparently lied about working side-by-side with Flowers’ sister. One was related to Flowers and lied about her opinion of the death penalty to try to get out of jury duty. And one said that because she worked with two of Flowers’ family members, she might favor him and would not consider only the evidence presented.
The state courts’ findings that these strikes were not based on race are the opposite of clearly erroneous; they are clearly correct. The Court attempts to overcome the evident race neutrality of jury selection in this trial by pointing to a supposed history of race discrimination in previous trials.But 49 of the State’s 50 peremptory strikes in Flowers’ previous trials were race neutral. The remaining strike occurred 20 years ago in a trial involving only one of Flowers’ crimes and was never subject to appellate review; the majority offers no plausible connection between that strike and Wright’s.
The majority’s opinion is so manifestly incorrect that I must proceed to the merits. Flowers presented no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination by the State in selecting the jury during the trial below. Each of the five challenged strikes was amply justified on race-neutral grounds timely offered by the State at the Batson hearing. None of the struck black jurors was remotely comparable to the seated white jurors. And nothing else about the State’s conduct at jury selection—whether trivial mistakes of fact or supposed disparate questioning—provides any evidence of purposeful discrimination based on race.
The majority focuses its discussion on potential juror Carolyn Wright, but the State offered multiple race-neutral reasons for striking her. To begin, Wright lost a lawsuit to Tardy Furniture soon after the murders, and a garnishment order was issued against her.
At the time of the murders, Bertha Tardy owned Tardy Furniture. Following her murder, her daughter and son-in-law succeeded her as owners; they sued Wright, and the daughter testified at this trial.
Indeed, a portion of the daughter’s testimony focused on obtaining judgments and garnishments against customers who did not pay off their accounts.
Given the multiple race-neutral reasons for the State’s strikes, evidence of racial discrimination would have to be overwhelming to show a Batson violation.
Given that there was no evidence of race discrimination in the trial here, the majority’s remaining explanation for its decision is conduct that took place before this trial. The majority builds its decision around the narrative that this case has a long history of race discrimination. This narrative might make for an entertaining melodrama, but it has no basis in the record. The history, such as it is, does not majority’s evidence falls woefully short.
Much of the Court’s opinion is a paean to Batson v. Kentucky, which requires that a duly convicted criminal go free because a juror was arguably deprived of his right to serve on the jury. That rule was suspect when it was announced, and I am even less confident of it today. Batson has led the Court to disregard Article III’s limitations on standing by giving a windfall to a convicted criminal who, even under Batson’s logic, suffered no injury. It has forced equal protection principles onto a procedure designed to give parties absolute discretion in making individual strikes. And it has blinded the Court to the reality that racial prejudice exists and can affect the fairness of trials.
If the Court’s opinion today has a redeeming quality, it is this: The State is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again. Otherwise, the opinion distorts our legal standards, ignores the record, and reflects utter disrespect for the careful analysis of the Mississippi courts.
Any competent prosecutor would have exercised the same strikes as the State did in this trial.
And although the Court’s opinion might boost its self-esteem, it also needlessly prolongs the suffering of four victims’ families.
I respectfully dissent.
KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS,
C. J., and GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GORSUCH, J., joined as to Parts I, II, and III.
To read more about the case, the concurring opinion written by Justice Alito and the dissent by Justice Thomas, the case is available on the Supreme Court’s site at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-9572_k536.pdf.