Justia Summary

Flowers was tried six times for the murder of four Mississippi furniture store employees. Flowers is black; three of the victims were white. At the first two trials, the prosecution used peremptory strikes on all qualified black prospective jurors. Two juries convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The convictions were reversed based on prosecutorial misconduct. At the third trial, the state used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his conviction again, citing Batson v. Kentucky. Flowers’ fourth and fifth trials ended in mistrials. At the sixth trial, the state exercised six peremptory strikes—five against black prospective jurors, allowing one black juror to be seated. The trial court rejected a Batson objection, finding that the prosecution had offered race-neutral reasons. The jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court twice affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. The trial court at Flowers’ sixth trial committed clear error in concluding that the peremptory strike of black prospective juror Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. Under Batson, once a prima facie case of discrimination is established, the state must provide race-neutral reasons for its peremptory strikes. The judge then must determine whether the stated reasons were pretextual. The Batson Court rejected arguments that: a defendant must demonstrate a history of racially discriminatory strikes to make establish race discrimination; a prosecutor could strike a black juror based on an assumption that the black juror would favor a black defendant; race-based peremptories should be permissible because black, white, Asian, and Hispanic defendants and jurors are “equally” subject to race-based discrimination; and that race-based peremptories are permissible because both the prosecution and defense could employ them.

The history of the state’s peremptory strikes in Flowers’ earlier trials supports the conclusion that its sixth trial peremptory strikes were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent. The prosecution spent far more time questioning the black prospective jurors than the accepted white jurors—145 questions asked of five black prospective jurors and 12 questions asked of 11 white seated jurors. Wright was struck, the state claimed, in part because she knew several defense witnesses and had worked at Wal-Mart where Flowers’ father also worked; several white prospective jurors also knew individuals involved in the case or had relationships with members of Flowers’ family. The prosecution did not ask questions to explore those relationships.