I knew I had no chance. This wasn’t like last time. And, sometimes you just know. How could death be my birthright?
Chances are if you’ve never had a thought like that, you are not an African-American in the criminal justice system.
I imagine these were the thoughts that kept Curtis Flowers from sleep, “after 23 years behind bars, six trials and four death sentences for a crime he did not commit,” from In The Dark’s (APM Podcast) website.
Imagine you were enjoying a day off with your family, surrounded by the sounds of laughter as you press a glass of ice tea to your lips. The hot sizzle of fish frying permeated the air as your yard filled with those waiting to buy your mom’s specialty, eager to support the local church.
It was a boiling hot day in Mississippi, you relax and drink in the warm breeze surrounded by your closest friends and family. Even some of the police officers you usually try to avoid have come out for the unmistakable taste of homemade southern cooking.
You don’t think anything of this day.
But soon this day, surrounded by witnesses who would continue to corroborate your alibi but would be ignored, would cling to your memory like wet clothes to the wearer.
That was the day a quadruple murder happened at Tardy Furniture Store, a store Flowers used to work at. A year passed and the unsolved murders agitated the police, according to In The Dark. They had nothing to show for their investigation. Not to mention it was a reelection year for District Attorney Doug Evans, solving the year’s biggest case could only help his campaign.
Curtis Flowers grew up in Mississippi, he worked and lived and loved in that small town. But in the end he was death row fodder for career advancement.
Flowers spent almost half of his life in Parchman Farm Prison, even after DA Evans had been charged with prosecutorial misconduct and placed under review by the Mississippi Bar Association.
Yet, according to David Leonhardt of The New York Times, “Evans remains the top prosecutor for seven Mississippi counties. He has faced no adverse consequences for his handling of the case.” The Supreme Court of the United States eventually exonerated Flowers in 2019, one of the many reasons being Evans’ disregard for 14th Amendment rights of equality under the law in the striking of black jurors, also the nail in the coffin for his prosecutorial misconduct charge.
If consequences are avoided, impunity will remain. Rampant abuse of criminal procedure and of defendants in the courtroom, particularly of minorities, plague the halls in America whose only duty is to uphold the law. Constitutional rights have been withheld as laws that on the face are colorblind, are distorted by bias to disproportionately affect people of color. The court must uphold constitutional rights and mandate a jury representative of the defendant’s location.
Nina Morrison of the Innocence project said that, “Prosecutors and police officers have tough jobs and sometimes make honest mistakes.” However, in the last 30 years, half of the exonerations performed by this project were due to “outright misconduct,” 78% of which fell on African-American men, according to Leonhardt.
The precedent set by the SCOTUS from the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky is that peremptory strikes cannot be used on the basis of race only. The challenge however, is determining purposeful discrimination. This is where disparity runs rampant.
The Jim Crow days of all-white juries are still an ever-present reality in America, one that typically ends in death row convictions for black defendants, even with underwhelming evidence and unreliable witnesses as in the Flowers case.
“In Batson, the court outlined a three-step approach for analyzing challenges to peremptory strikes” according to Jennifer Robbennolt of the APA. “First, the party objecting to the strike must present facts that raise an inference that the strike was racially biased. Second, the party who made the strike must present a neutral explanation. Finally, the trial court must determine whether the party objecting to the strike has established purposeful discrimination.”
The pervasive problem is that a “neutral explanation” can be conjured in an instant, even if it is an unconstitutional strike. “District Attorney Doug Evans and his assistants, over 26 years, struck Black prospective jurors at nearly 4.5 times the rate they struck white ones,” according to In The Dark’s research.
For the 6th Amendment right of an impartial jury of peers to be available to every defendant, there must be alterations in the construction and process of jury selection.
African-American men are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, partially due to un-evolving precedents that can let a DA like Evans try a man six times for a murder with little evidence and a jury that does not constitute the demographic makeup of his town, and due to letting a DA like Evans, charged with misconduct on multiple occasions, still remain the state’s DA over seven counties.
Impunity will not advance a society. The court must uphold constitutional rights and mandate a jury representative of a defendant’s location.