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June 21, 2019

SCOTUS finds Batson violation based on "extraordinary facts" in Flowers

The Supreme Court ruled for a criminal defendant today in a Batson challenge in Mississippi v. Flowers, No. 17-9572 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here). As with all criminal cases, I find the line up of the Justices notable:

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.

Here is part of the start of the lengthy opening of the opinion of the Court:

In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), this Court ruled that a State may not discriminate on the basis of race when exercising peremptory challenges against prospective jurors in a criminal trial.

In 1996, Curtis Flowers allegedly murdered four people in Winona, Mississippi. Flowers is black. He has been tried six separate times before a jury for murder. The same lead prosecutor represented the State in all six trials.

In the initial three trials, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed each conviction. In the first trial, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the conviction due to “numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct.”  Flowers v. State, 773 So. 2d 309, 327 (2000)....

In his sixth trial, which is the one at issue here, Flowers was convicted. The State struck five of the six black prospective jurors.  On appeal, Flowers argued that the State again violated Batson in exercising peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors. In a divided 5-to-4 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.  We granted certiorari on the Batson question and now reverse....

Four critical facts, taken together, require reversal....

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 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.” Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 23) (internal quotation marks omitted). 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. 

June 21, 2019 at 10:15 AM | Permalink


Hey Prof B, do you think that if Flowers is eventually acquitted (or this prosecutor finally decides to stop trying him after 6 failed attempts) then Flowers will have a decent argument for bringing a civil case? I understand that civil recoveries are hard to get, but this situation seems like a particularly good candidate, right? Thanks!

Posted by: Joe B | Jun 21, 2019 11:49:37 AM

I am not an expert on either Batson claims or 1983 suits, but I think this would be an uphill climb.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 21, 2019 12:27:22 PM

My expectation is that, at some point, Mississippi offers a plea to a lesser-homicide for time served and Flowers takes it which would eliminate any civil claim.

Posted by: tmm | Jun 21, 2019 12:51:13 PM

23 years and 6 trials does seem like more than enough punishment at this point. It just doesn't appear like there has been much accountability for this prosecutor and that bums me out

Posted by: Joe B | Jun 21, 2019 1:19:29 PM

Love this ruling. When the "racially neutral" thing is a statistically provable lie, it should be treated as such.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jun 21, 2019 10:20:37 PM

Virtue-signaling by the Court---as weak as Buck v. Thaler.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 22, 2019 8:59:37 AM

federalist said:

"Virtue-signaling by the Court---as weak as Buck v. Thaler."

Would you please elaborate because your statement makes no sense to me. If the Flowers Court is virtue-signaling by finding race based bias, and the Thaler Court DENIED CERT finding NO reversible race based bias, then both positions are virtue signaling? Are you referring to the dissent in Thaler? Something else?

Posted by: USPO-Retired | Jun 22, 2019 12:40:52 PM

First, I wonder if upon remand, Flowers' defense lawyers can move to recuse the prosecutor in his 6 prior trials, given what the Supreme Court has had to say about the case. Getting a new and different prosecutor might help Mr. Flowers and his defense lawyers find a favorable resolution of this tortured case. Second, I am wondering what the disciplinary sanctions from the Mississippi Bar Association might be for this prosecutor, since the U.S. Supreme Court has basically indicated that the prosecutor has violated his civil rights under color of law in 6 trials spanning 23 years, by striking 41 out of 43 prospective black juror from the jury pool. If I was Mr. Flowers, I would definitely be filing a Bar Complaint, and attaching a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion.

Posted by: James Gormley | Jun 23, 2019 12:16:20 PM

I suspect, USPO, that federalist means Buck v. Davis from 2017.

Posted by: Doug B | Jun 23, 2019 10:59:07 PM

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