WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the murder conviction of an African American man from Mississippi who had been tried six times by nearly all-white juries.
The justices, by a 7-2 vote, said the prosecutor had wrongly excluded potential black jurors because of their race.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh speaking for the court, said the prosecutor had displayed a pattern of racial bias in selecting jurors in the case of defendant Curtis Flowers. "The numbers speak loudly. In six trials combined, the state employed its peremptory challenges to strike 41 of 42 black prospective jurors," he said.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M Gorsuch dissented.
The ruling does not mean Flowers will go free after 22 years in prison. And the court's decision does not say or suggest that Flowers is not guilty of shooting and killing four people in a furniture store where he briefly worked.
But the ruling is a rebuke to Doug Evans, a white district attorney who insisted on personally prosecuting the case against Flowers in 2010 despite five earlier reversals.
State prosecutors must decide whether to retry Flowers for a seventh time.
The Supreme Court has struggled with how to remove racial bias in the selection of jurors, because both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are usually given the freedom to exclude an equal number of potential jurors based on the hunch they will be unfavorable to their side.
In this case, in which a black defendant was accused of killing a white store owner and three employees, the prosecutor used his "peremptory challenges" to exclude African Americans. The defense attorney not surprisingly used his challenges to exclude white jurors.
In a 1986 case called Batson vs. Kentucky, the court said that if a prosecutor shows a pattern of excluding jurors based on their race, the trial judge should intervene and decide whether the prosecutor had a legitimate and non-racial reason for excluding an individual.