Citing racial bias, U.S. high court tosses black man’s murder conviction

Death row inmate Curtis Flowers. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Corrections/via REUTERS

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court, confronting racial bias in the American criminal justice system, on Friday threw out a black Mississippi death row inmate’s conviction in his sixth trial for a 1996 quadruple murder conviction, finding that a prosecutor unlawfully blocked black potential jurors.

The court, in a 7-2 ruling written by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, found that the prosecutor’s actions violated the right of Curtis Flowers, 49, under the U.S. Constitution to receive a fair trial. The ruling does not preclude Mississippi from putting Flowers on trial for a seventh time.

Kavanaugh, appointed by President Donald Trump last year, wrote that the prosecutors sought to strike black jurors through all six trials. Prosecutors “engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors” at his sixth trial, Kavanaugh added.

The prosecution’s decision in the most recent trial to strike one black juror in particular “was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The decision was the latest of several in recent years in which the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of individual criminal defendants on race-related issues.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump in 2017, and fellow conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in the case.

In his dissenting opinion, Thomas described the ruling as “manifestly incorrect.” Thomas noted the court’s majority “does not dispute that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flowers or that he was tried by an impartial jury.”

Thomas, the only black Supreme Court justice and one of its most conservative members, asked his first questions during an oral argument in three years when the case was argued in March. His questions centered on whether defense lawyers for Flowers during his trials had excluded white potential jurors.

In U.S. trials, prosecutors and defense lawyers can dismiss – or “strike” – a certain number of prospective jurors during the jury selection process without stating a reason. Some prosecutors, including in Southern states like Mississippi, have been accused over the decades of trying to ensure predominately white juries for trials of black defendants to help win convictions.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that people cannot be excluded from a jury because of their race, based on the right to a fair trial under the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment and the 14th Amendment promise of equal protection under the law. Friday’s ruling applied that precedent and, Kavanaugh wrote, “we break no new legal ground.”

Flowers was appealing his 2010 conviction, in his sixth trial, on charges of murdering four people at the Tardy Furniture store where he previously worked in the small central Mississippi city of Winona. There were 11 white jurors and one black juror.

His lawyers accused long-serving Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans, who is white, of engaging in a pattern of removing black jurors that indicated an unlawful discriminatory motive. Evans has given non-racial reasons for striking black potential jurors.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, said it is now up to Evans to decide whether Flowers will face another trial. Evans could not immediately be reached for comment.

Flowers’ lawyer, Sheri Lynn Johnson, expressed hope Flowers would not face another trial.

“A seventh trial would be unprecedented, and completely unwarranted given both the flimsiness of the evidence against him and the long trail of misconduct that has kept him wrongfully incarcerated all these years,” Johnson said.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law civil rights group, said the ruling should “sound an alarm” for prosecutors who engage in racial discrimination during jury selection.

“Racial bias continues to infect virtually every stage of our criminal justice system, including the jury selection process,” Clarke added.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a black Georgia death row inmate who also said black potential jurors were excluded by the prosecution in his case. In 2017, the court ruled in separate cases that a Hispanic man could challenge his conviction based on a juror’s racist comments and that a black Texas death row inmate could seek to avoid execution due to testimony from an expert witness at trial who said the man was more likely to commit future crimes because of his race.

Flowers was found guilty in his first three trials – the first one with an all-white jury and the next two with just one black juror – but those convictions were thrown out by Mississippi’s top court. Several black jurors participated in the fourth and fifth trials, which ended without a verdict because the jury both times failed to produce a unanimous decision.

Prosecutors have said Flowers was upset with the store owner for firing him and withholding his paycheck to cover the cost of batteries he had damaged. Flowers was convicted of killing store owner Bertha Tardy, 59; bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, 45; delivery worker Robert Golden, 42; and part-time employee Derrick Stewart, 16. All except Golden were white.


(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Protests, U.S. gun violence worry some black travelers from abroad

Police scuffle with demonstrator

By Gina Cherelus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – With protests hitting many U.S. cities, the deadly ambush of Dallas police, and the ever-present threat of gun violence, four countries have urged citizens to be on alert if visiting the United States, and some black travelers are worried about making the trip.

Some African community groups in the United States and elsewhere told Reuters that family members of those already in America were scared by recent events, and some had been warned by relatives to reconsider any trip.

“When we talk to them in the community, some of the things that they say are, ‘there are so many crazy things happening in your country that if I can avoid coming I won’t come,'” said Ibrahima Sow, president of the Association of Senegalese in America.

The Bahamas, Bahrain, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates have warned citizens to be on guard if visiting U.S. cities rocked by sometimes violent protests that erupted over the last week following the fatal shootings of two black American men by police.

In stark terms, the Bahamas told young men especially to exercise “extreme caution” when interacting with police. “Do not be confrontational and cooperate,” it said.

Sow said concerns about travel to the United States have been high since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His group gives specific guidance to Senegalese travelers about how to behave with the police.

“We say there are things that you need to know if you are stopped by the police,” Sow said. “We tell people to be cautious and when you get stopped in the streets by police don’t move your hands, don’t move your body, don’t do anything.”


Some similar organizations in Europe said they also had longstanding advice that they give to members who are thinking about visiting the United States.

“I would feel less safe there than four or five years ago,” said Louis-Georges Tin, president of France’s Council of Black Associations, which gathers about 100 organizations in France to fight against racism and promote French ties with Africa.

That sentiment was echoed by others including Paul Rose of, a website and think tank for the British Afro Caribbean community. He said social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter had raised awareness of what he called “atrocities” by U.S. police.

“You don’t want to find yourself in situations where you are confronted with the police,” Rose said. “Look at the incarceration rates of black men in America, look at the effects of the economic downturn, which affect the black community far more. The stats are just awful.”

Some people already living in the United States said the turbulence is sometimes too much for their visiting relatives, even if the perception is worse than the reality.

“I have a cousin who is here right now and she’s even scared to go outside to 34th street,” said Zainab Bunduka, a 55-year-old employee at New York City’s North Shore Hospital. She is originally from the West African country of Sierra Leone, which was ravaged by civil war during the 1990s.

“She’s scared because we don’t have all these gunshots back home,” said Bunduka.

(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London and Chine Labbe in Paris; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Frances Kerry)

San Francisco police search blacks, Hispanics more than whites: panel

Police standing on Lombard Street

By Curtis Skinner

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Three former judges examining accusations of racial bias by police in San Francisco said in a report released on Monday that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without their consent by officers than whites and Asians.

The panel released its report as the United States reeled over the slayings of five police officers in Dallas who were on duty at a protest over the slayings of black men in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

“The panel found indications of institutionalized bias and institutional weaknesses in the department,” Anand Subramanian, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement, said at a news conference.

The panel, consisting of retired state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell and retired federal Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian, was convened by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón in March 2015 after racist text messages sent and received by San Francisco officers were made public.

San Francisco Police said in a statement after the report was released that they appreciated the panel’s efforts and would review the findings before turning over their analysis to Justice Department.

The panel said in a 240-page report that blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be searched after traffic stops than whites or Asians yet less likely to be carrying contraband.

According to the report, of all non-consensual searches after traffic stops, 42 percent in 2015 involved black motorists. The U.S. Census showed that in 2015, blacks made up less than 6 percent of the city’s population of 865,000.

Hispanics, who made up about 15 percent of San Franciscans in 2015, accounted for 19 percent of non-consensual searches, while whites accounted for half the population, but 21 percent of non-consensual searches, the report said.

Asians made up more than a third of the population, but were searched without their consent fewer than 10 percent of the time, according to the report.

The report recommended that San Francisco’s police department should improve its training on implicit bias, procedural justice and racial profiling, and called for stronger oversight.

The San Francisco Police Officer’s Association called the report misleading and divisive.

“We’re sitting on a tinderbox and Gascón is lighting a match,” association president Martin Halloran said in a statement.

San Francisco’s police department has been roiled by protests since December after the videotaped fatal police shooting of a black man.

The death of Mario Woods, 26, prompted a U.S. Department of Justice review of the police department.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Sharon Bernstein)