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April 20, 2019

Top US court troubled by case of black man tried six times

Top US court troubled by case of black man tried six times
'The US Supreme Court will examine the case of an African-American man tried six separate times for the same crime, in a case driven by a white prosecutor who has been accused of trying to keep black people off the jury' - By: AFP ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

The US Supreme Court appeared vexed on Wednesday by the case of a black man who was tried six separate times for the same crime in a process tainted by charges of racism.

Associate Justice Samuel Alito, one of the five conservative justices on the nine-member bench, said he found aspects of the case of death row inmate Curtis Flowers "troubling."

Flowers, 48, was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death for the July 1996 murders of four people in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, where he had briefly worked until being fired.

Flowers was tried five separate times for the crime before his 2010 conviction and has spent nearly half his life behind bars.

Three convictions were thrown out on appeal because of prosecutorial misconduct and two trials ended in a hung jury.

The Supreme Court is not examining the guilt or innocence of Flowers but whether the district attorney deliberately sought to keep black people off the jury in his most recent trial.

While prosecutors and defense lawyers are allowed to use what are called peremptory challenges to eliminate potential jurors they are not allowed to do so on the basis of race.

Lawyers for Flowers argued that district attorney Doug Evans, who prosecuted all six cases and is white, rejected potential black jurors in what amounted to racial discrimination.

US law forbids someone from being tried twice for the same offense, but since the cases were eventually inconclusive Flowers could be tried again.

During the 2010 trial which resulted in Flowers' conviction and death sentence, Evans rejected five of six potential black jurors.

Jason Davis, representing the state of Mississippi in court on Wednesday, said this was because they either had links to Flowers or debts to the furniture store.

- 'Extremely aggressive' -

Sheri Lynn Johnson, Flowers' lawyer, responded by pointing out that the five potential black jurors were asked 145 questions compared to just 12 for the 11 eventual white jurors.

And the questioning of the potential black jurors was "extremely aggressive," Johnson said.

"It looks as if he was trying to create a record to strike black jurors," said Justice Elena Kagan, one of the court's four liberal justices, all of whom appeared sympathetic to Flowers' case.

Another liberal justice, Sonia Sotomayor, said Evans had shown an extraordinary "passion for this case" by putting Flowers repeatedly on trial.

Flowers was arrested several months after the murders, when two witnesses said they saw him near the scene of the crime. He has maintained his innocence.

The case gained national prominence after it was the subject of a podcast called "Into the Dark" by journalist Madeleine Baran and a radio colleague from American Public Media.

"Curtis Flowers was always tried by an all-white jury or a nearly all-white jury, even though the place where the murders happened and where he lived was nearly 50 percent African-American," Baran said.

In Mississippi, a southern state with a history of slavery and racial segregation, "I met only one white person who thought that Curtis Flowers was innocent," Baran told AFP.

In an unusual occurrence, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative renowned for his silence during oral arguments, asked his first question in over three years.

Thomas asked what the race was of the jurors dismissed by the defense and was told they were white.

The court is expected to render its decision by June of this year, but Baran noted that even if it rules in Flowers' favor he could still go on trial again.

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