The case of Curtis Clowers is one of the most outstanding among Supreme Court cases reviewed in the last two decades. Curtis Giovanni Flowers (born May 29, 1970) is an African-American man who has been on trial six times for the same crime in the state of Mississippi, United States. This year, the Supreme Court overruled Flowers’ murder conviction, but the final decision has yet to be made. This paper goes in-depth on the case of Curtis Flowers: it discusses the issues with jury selection and explains the notion of reasonable doubt. Aside from that, this paper describes the current state of the case as well as provides an outlook on the US criminal justice system in general.
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The Issues with the Jury and Jury Selection
One of the reasons why the case of Curtis Flower has once again become subject to scrutiny is the issues with the jury and the jury selection. While this aspect of this case has always been problematic, information about some particularities of the selection process has only recently resurfaced. As stated in the court transcript from Curtis Flowers’ most recent trial:
“Petitioner Curtis Flowers has been tried six separate times for the murder of four employees of a Mississippi furniture store. Flowers are black; three of the four victims were white. At the first two trials, the State used its peremptory strikes on all of the qualified black prospective jurors. […] At the third trial, the State used all of its 15 peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors, and the jury convicted Flowers and sentenced him to death (Flowers v. Mississippi).”
As seen from the transcript, it was hard to look at the jury selection documentation and not wonder whether some racial dynamics were involved; otherwise, the jury makeup would be barely explicable.
The outcome of any trial relies heavily on those sitting on the jury. Each of Flowers’ trials showcased a rather curious pattern, namely, White people were overrepresented, while Black people – underrepresented or absent altogether. In the Dark investigated the actions of prosecutor Doug Evans who was responsible for the jury selection. As it turned out, the jury pool for the first trial included five Black people, and Evans used his leverage to struck each of them (“In the Dark Season Two”)). The pool for the second trial included five Black people as well, and they all were excluded upon Evans’ request.
The third trial recruited 17 Black candidates, and 15 of them were struck by Evans. He’s leaving out two candidates may seem like a good sign. However, it should be noted that the prosecutor had 15 peremptory strikes and used each of them to make sure that the jury board has as few Black people as possible. The same happened at the fourth trial where Evans again used all of his strikes to exclude Black jurors. In the most recent trial, Evans struck five out of six Black jurors. Interestingly enough, each time Black jurors were presented during the trial, it would end in a hung jury. However, when the jury makeup was exclusively White, it was recommended to send Flowers to the death chamber.
One may speculate that perhaps, Evans tried to get the jury makeup closer to the actual racial ratio in the county. However, the county in question is about 45% Black (“In the Dark Season 2”). Another version that could justify Evans’ actions would be that Black jurors’ skills were subpar in comparison to those of White jurors. On appeal, Flowers, lawyers claimed that the state accepted White jurors whose expertise and the experience were similar to those of Black jurors. There were no sound reasons as to why the latter might have been rightfully left out. Yet, in the 2017 decision made by the Mississippi Supreme Court, the exclusions were validated.
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Questionable and Illegal Actions of the District Attorney
District Attorney Doug Evans might have violated the presumption of innocence when handling Curtis Flowers’ case. Legally, a criminal defendant is entitled to evidence that could point toward his innocence. This standard comes from the landmark US Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland. Flowers’ prosecutors failed to do so as they assumed that the man was guilty from the very beginning. Probably, the most significant piece of evidence that can make a case for a defendant’s innocence is evidence that points toward another suspect.
In an interview with In the Dark, Bennet Gershman, a law professor at Pace University, stated that there was a third party involved in the killing, which constitutes favorable evidence to the defendant. In Flowers v. Mississippi, prosecutors claimed that Flowers was the only suspect from the start and that they had never entertained any other options. Yet, not so long ago, new information resurfaced that might render prosecutors’ claims completely invalid.
In actuality, on July 21, Hemphill was booked into jail – this fact was discovered when In the Dark searched through a defunct plastics factory where the county has gotten rid of decades of court records. In the Dark did not stop there and interviewed Hemphill. The man admitted that all the while, he was a serious suspect. Investigators went as far as telling him that an eyewitness saw him next to Tarty Furniture on the day of the shooting. When he was booked into jail, he wore the same model of sneakers that left footprints on the store’s floor.
Hemphill also said that he did not have a brief conversation with investigators they interviewed him for two hours. All of his statements were recorded; they photographed and examined his sneakers and fingerprinted him. Hemphill was held in jail for eleven days, but the accompanying papers did not clarify the exact reason for his arrest. The papers were never used in handling the case of Curtis Flowers, even though they could have been favorable evidence.
Reasonable doubt means a lack of proof that prevents a judge or jury from convicting a suspect for the charged crime. In the US criminal justice system and other countries using common law, reasonable doubt has become the standard of proof. Reasonable doubt must be exceeded by solid evidence and testimonies to justify a conviction in a criminal case. The expression “beyond a reasonable doubt” means that the evidence presented establishes the defendant’s guilt in such a way that no reasonable person would doubt it. As a concept and a standard, reasonable doubt is especially important in criminal cases since a wrong ruling can deprive a person of decades of liberty or even life.
The case of Curtis Flowers did not fit a “beyond reasonable doubt” situation. First, the central piece of evidence, i.e. the gun, has never been found. Investigators only matched the bullets found at the shooting site to those discovered around Flowers’ uncle’s house. The similarity was proven using the key assumptions of ballistics, but now, the discipline often becomes the subject of scrutiny and criticism.
Furthermore, eyewitnesses’ testimonies raise reasonable doubts. Most of them assume that they witnessed Flowers next to Tardy Furniture on that day. However, their description of Flowers’ clothes does not match what he was wearing. Lastly, the most powerful piece of evidence, which is the confession, has been debunked. It is now argued that Hallman to whom Flowers allegedly confessed in prison was manipulated by the court. He cooperated and testified against Flowers to get away with his felonies.
The Current State of the Case of Curtis Flowers: Revelations
The case of Curtis Flowers has yet to come to a logical end, and it is likely to require some more time until the final resolution. However, as seen from the updates submitted by the creators of In the Dark podcast, the dynamics of the case have recently picked up the pace. On June 21, 2019, a Mississippi prosecutor who tried Curtis Flowers six times in a row, each time trying to send him to the death chamber, rejected a seventh trial (Amy).
The latest trial conviction and death sentence were overturned due to the possibility of racial bias in the jury selection, which was discussed earlier in this paper. Prosecutor Doug Evans stayed steadfast regarding his opinion on Flowers. “There’s no question about [Flowers’] guilt. There has never been,” – told Evans in response to the podcast’s requests (Amy). Three days later, on June 24, Evans told The Grenada Star magazine that Flowers needed to be retried.
On July 2, Bob McDuff became Flowers’ new lawyer and pledged to put an end to injustice (“S2E15: Revelations”). According to McDuff, making a person spend 22 years on death row is unprecedented in capital murder cases. To him, it was outrageous that after all these years, the court could not come to a consensus regarding the case of Curtis Flowers. On the same day, one of the major witnesses, Clemmie Flemming, recanted her testimony (“S2E15: Revelations”).
The woman confessed that even though she did indeed see Flowers around the Tardy Furniture store, she could not recall whether it was on the day when the shooting took place. Flemming also reported that she testified at all the six trials out of fear. Namely, she thought that if she had decided otherwise, she would have faced repercussions from the legal system.
On July 23, the Supreme Court of the United States sent the case back to Mississippi that had previously refused to work on it any further (“CURTIS GIOVANNI FLOWERS v. MISSISSIPPI”). A month later, on August 29, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Flowers’ conviction and death sentence (“Supreme Court of Mississippi Reversal”). On September 23, Flowers left Parchman, the prison that houses Mississippi’s death row where he spent the majority of his jail time (Yesko). The man was held at the Grenada County Jail for a day before being transferred to a jail in Louisville, Mississippi. There, he will be awaiting a seventh trial or final release.
The case of Curtis Flowers showcases the importance of diversity in court. It is a well-known fact that Black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system of the United States. Statistically speaking, out of the current 2.2 million people incarcerated in the country’s jails and prisons, around 30% are Black people and other people of color (Chavis). It should be noted that as a 2018 Pew Research Study has shown, African Americans make up only 12% of the US adult population (Chavis). Other sources report that African American men are incarcerated at more than five times the rate than While American men (Chavis).
From the case of Curtis Flowers, two conclusions may be drawn:
- racially diverse jury boards are more likely to be well-informed and fair toward a suspect;
- the American criminal justice system not only lacks diversity – it actively opposes it.
It is not yet clear how the situation will further unfold. What is apparent though is that it is incredibly difficult to prove racial bias in a criminal case. Evans and other prosecutors managed to get away with their purposeful jury selection for two decades, and each time, their choice was somehow considered valid. Perhaps, the case of Curtis Flowers will open doors to new regulations that will not be confined to this particular situation. In any case, the US criminal justice system has yet to embrace justice and treat suspects on equal grounds regardless of their race.
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Amy, Jeff. “Prosecutor Could Decide on Seventh Trial in Mississippi Case.” AP News, 2019. Web.
Chavis, Benjamin F. “Criminal Justice Reform Long Overdue for Black America.” The Philadelphia Tribune. 2018. Web.
CURTIS GIOVANNI FLOWERS v. MISSISSIPPI: SCOTUS Mandate. APM Reports, 2019. Web.
Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572, 588 U.S. ___. (2019). Supreme Court of the United States. Web.
In the Dark Season 2. APM Reports, 2019. Web.
S2E15: Revelations. APM Reports, 2019. Web.
Supreme Court of Mississippi Reversal. APM Reports, 2019. Web.
Yesko, Parker. “Curtis Flowers Leaves Parchman Prison, Returns to County Jail.”. 2019, APM Reports. Web.