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US Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction Due to Batson Violation

gavel-2-1236453-300x200In a recent United States Supreme Court decision, Flowers v. Mississippi, the Court reversed Flowers’s murder conviction because the state prosecutor “discriminate[d] on the basis of race when exercising peremptory challenges against prospective jurors,” contrary to the principles set forth in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

The background was as follows. Flowers, who is black, “allegedly murdered four people…. He has been tried six separate times before a jury for murder. The same lead prosecutor [who is white] 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.’…. In the second trial, the trial court found that the prosecutor discriminated on the basis of race in the peremptory challenge of a black juror. The trial court seated the black juror. Flowers was then convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court again reversed the conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct at trial. In the third trial, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court yet again reversed the conviction, this time because the court concluded that the prosecutor had again discriminated against black prospective jurors in the jury selection process…. The fourth and fifth trials of Flowers ended in mistrials…. 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…. [T]he Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the conviction” and Flowers sought certiorari.

In its decision, the U. S. Supreme Court stated, “Four critical facts, taken together, require reversal. First, in the six trials combined, the State employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of the 42 black prospective jurors that it could have struck…. Second, in the most recent trial, the sixth trial, the State exercised peremptory strikes against five of the six black prospective jurors. Third, at the sixth trial, in an apparent effort to find pretextual reasons to strike black prospective jurors, the State engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors. Fourth, the State then struck at least one black prospective juror, Carolyn Wright, who was similarly situated to white prospective jurors who were not struck by the State.” Regarding “the State’s dramatically disparate questioning,” the Court pointed out that “[t]he State asked the five black prospective jurors who were struck a total of 145 questions. By contrast, the State asked the 11 seated white jurors a total of 12 questions.” “Why did the State ask so many more questions … of black prospective jurors than it did of white prospective jurors?” The Court opined that “by asking a lot of questions of the black prospective jurors …, a prosecutor can try to find some pretextual reason — any reason — that the prosecutor can later articulate to justify what is in reality a racially motivated strike. And … by not asking white prospective jurors those same questions,” the prosecutor “can produce a record that says little about white prospective jurors and is therefore resistant to characteristic-by-characteristic comparisons of struck black prospective jurors and seated white jurors.” Focusing in particular on the peremptory strike of one of the black prospective jurors (Carolyn Wright), the Court noted that she had “said she was strongly in favor of the death penalty as a general matter…. Yet the State exercised a peremptory strike against” her on the grounds that “she knew several defense witnesses…. Wright had some sort of connection to 34 people involved in Flowers’ case…. But three white prospective jurors … also knew many individuals involved in the case…. Yet … the State did not ask [those prospective jurors] individual follow-up questions about their connections to witnesses…. If the State were concerned about prospective jurors’ connections to witnesses in the case, the State presumably would have used individual questioning to ask those potential white jurors whether they could remain impartial despite their relationships.” In these circumstances, the Supreme Court “conclude[d] that the trial court clearly erred in ruling that the State’s peremptory strike of Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.”

Selecting jurors who have the ability to be fair and impartial is one of the most critical aspects of a criminal trial.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta has selected many juries during the course of his work as a trial attorney and knows the best strategies to employ and appropriate issues and objections to raise to make sure his clients get a fair trial.  Call him for a consultation today.

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