While attending the American Library Association conference in Washington, D.C. last month, I had the opportunity to visit the United States Supreme Court. As a member of the USSC Bar, I had the privilege of escorting members of our group through the Court’s Library. We also had a wonderful tour guide assigned to us and learned many tidbits while we were there walking through the magnificent building. Of particular interest was the fact that Indiana White Oak is used extensively throughout the Courthouse as reflected in some of the beautiful doors, paneled walls and flooring. It was quite rewarding to see one of our State’s native species throughout the building surviving the decades with character and grace.
Unbeknownst to our group, just prior to the scheduled time to meet our guide from the curator’s office, the members of the Supreme Court gave four opinions in open court. The cases of Flowers v. Mississippi, Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al., Rehaif v. United States, and North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberly Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust opinions were all handed down by the court on June 21. The written opinions are available immediately from the Public Information Officer so I made my way to that desk. My attention was drawn to the Flowers v. Mississippi opinion. The facts of this case are horrific.
Four people were murdered at Tardy Furniture on July 16, 1996 in Winona, Mississippi. The owner, Bertha Tardy and three other employees were already at the store working away when Bertha called a former employee to ask if he could come and assist in training. Later that morning, when he entered the store, the first thing that hit him was a sound, a gurgling sound. The next thing he noticed was a 16-year-old boy named Derrick Stewart lying in a pool of blood. Then he located Robert Golden, Carmen Rigby and Bertha Tardy, all deceased. Sadly, the young boy did not survive either.
After an investigation, Curtis Flowers, a black man, was arrested for the murders. Of the four victims, three were white and one was black. He was tried and convicted six times for the murders and each time sentenced to death. However, this court opinion was not about his guilt or innocence, it was about the use of peremptory strikes available to the prosecutor to dismiss prospective jurors.
Each of Flower’s prior five convictions was reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court based on prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecutorial misconduct allegation was that the State struck down prospective jurors based on race, which is illegal with sound precedent imbedded in the case of Batson v. Kentucky.
Justice Kavanaugh penned the majority (7-2) opinion and pointed out that in each of the six trials, Mississippi had the same lead prosecutor. Also in each of the six trials, black prospective jurors were questioned more extensively and dismissed on a more frequent basis than white prospective jurors. Justice Kavanaugh writes that equal justice under law required a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process. Ultimately, the Court reversed Flower's sixth conviction and remanded the case back to Mississippi.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas, opines that the Court didn’t dispute that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flowers, or that he was tried by an impartial jury. Instead, the Court vacated Flowers convictions on the grounds that the State Court erred in finding that the State did not discriminate based on race when it struck a juror from the jury pool. Justice Thomas looked behind the racial issues and reviewed the record on why some of the black jurors were dismissed. The stated reasons were that some of the jurors knew the Flowers family, some had been sued by Tardy Furniture, one had a brother in prison, one had sons that played ball with Flowers, one would not consider the death penalty and one worked with Flowers’ sister. All reasons that Justice Thomas supported striking from the pool of prospective jurors.
Justice Thomas shifts the focus to the fairness of trials to both the defendant, whose liberty is at stake, and to the people who seek justice under the law. In his final statement, he said that the redeeming quality of the majority opinion was that the state is perfectly free to convict Curtis Flowers again.
So where does this leave us? Our system of justice, however flawed, is the best that we have. Will we ever actually know what lies in the hearts of those who are involved in the process? We must rely on application of principals and precedents in order to ensure that we continue to progress and move forward toward a society that does not discriminate for any reason while exercising discretion to ensure justice for all. I for one take parts of both the majority and the dissent to heart. In the majority, if true, it is despicable that racial discrimination was used to strike jurors from a pool. In the dissent, I agree with Justice Thomas that justice cannot be had if relatives or friends of the defendant were on the jury nor could the defendant be treated fairly if the reverse were true. The best that we can hope for is that someday, somehow, we will live in a society where we all treat each other with the dignity and respect every person deserves. It will take strength and endurance just like that of the mighty Indiana white oak that lines the halls of justice to make that happen, but you never know anything is possible and it might as well start here at home.