Supreme Court overturns death sentence because of race based exclusion of Black jurors

Flowers v. Mississippi, Supreme Court of the United States, 2019 WL 25524892019 WL 2552489,June 21, 2019

Defendant, (Flowers) who is black, was indicted for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store, three of whom were white. Flowers was tried six separate times for the murders and was convicted on one of those counts and sentenced to death. Flowers appealed.

The Supreme Court, Justice Kavanaugh, held that trial court clearly erred in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent, in violation of Batson.

State used peremptory challenges to remove black jurors

The State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors in Flowers’ first two trials. The juries convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death, but the convictions were later reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct. The State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors in his third trial which resulted in a a conviction that was again overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court which concluded 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 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. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 195 L.Ed.2d 1, the Mississippi Supreme Court again upheld Flowers’ conviction. Flowers appeals that decision

Batson and discriminatory intent in excluding jurors

The Supreme Court reversed after finding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror  was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.

Under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination has been shown by a defendant, the State must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory challenges . The trial judge then must determine whether the prosecutor’s stated reasons were the actual reasons or instead were a pretext for discrimination. The Batson Court rejected four arguments:

1. The Batson Court rejected the idea that a defendant must demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes in order to make out a claim of race discrimination.
2. The Batson Court rejected the argument that a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption or belief that the black juror would favor a black defendant.
3. The Batson Court rejected the argument that race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors were all “equally” subject to race-based discrimination. Fourth,
4. The Batson Court rejected the argument that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could equally employ them in a case.

The Constitution prohibits striking any prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose. See Foster, 578 U. S., at ––––, 136 S.Ct., at 1747. The Supreme Court decided whether the Mississippi trial court clearly erred in concluding that the State was not “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent” when exercising peremptory strikes at Flowers’ sixth trial. In finding that the State was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent in excluding black jurors, the Supreme Court riled on four categories of evidence.

Four categories of evidence used to determine a Batson violation in this case

(1) A review of the history of the State’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ first four supports the conclusion that the peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. The State tried to strike all 36 black prospective jurors over the course of the first four trials. The State’s “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the State wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury.”
(2) The State’s use of peremptory strikes in Flowers’ sixth trial followed the same pattern as the first four trials.
(3) Disparate questioning can be probative of discriminatory intent. Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 331–332, 344–345.Here, the State spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of 5 black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors. Dramatically disparate questioning and investigation of black prospective jurors and white prospective jurors at the sixth trial strongly suggest that the State was motivated in substantial part by a discriminatory intent.
(4) Comparing prospective jurors who were struck and not struck can be an important step in determining whether a Batson violation occurred. A series of factually inaccurate explanations for striking black prospective jurors can be another clue showing discriminatory intent.