Thomas speaks as U.S. high court weighs death row inmate's race claim
By Lawrence Hurley WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to side with a black Mississippi death row inmate tried six times for a 1996 quadruple murder who accused a prosecutor of repeatedly removing black jurors to help win a conviction, in an oral argument in which Justice Clarence Thomas broke a three-year silence. Thomas, a conservative justice and the court's only black member, usually does not speak during arguments
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to side with a black Mississippi death row inmate tried six times for a 1996 quadruple murder who accused a prosecutor of repeatedly removing black jurors to help win a conviction, in an oral argument in which Justice Clarence Thomas broke a three-year silence.
Thomas, a conservative justice and the court's only black member, usually does not speak during arguments. He asked several questions from the bench - his first since 2016 - in the case involving Curtis Flowers, 48. His remarks, focusing on whether defense lawyers sought to exclude white people from the jury, indicated Thomas may vote against the defendant, though other justices signaled sympathy toward Flowers' claims.
The Flowers case is the latest dispute to reach the justices over allegations of racial bias in an American criminal justice system in which blacks and other minorities are disproportionately represented in prison populations. 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.
Under a 1986 Supreme Court precedent, people cannot be excluded from a jury because of their race based on the right to a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment and the 14th Amendment promise of equal protection under the law.
In responding to Thomas, Flowers' lawyer, Sheri Lynn Johnson, said the jurors that the defense sought to remove were white.
The other justices largely sounded supportive of Flowers' claim. "You can't take the history out of this case," conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh told the state's lawyer, Jason Davies.
Another conservative, Justice Samuel Alito, said "the history of this case prior to this trial is very troubling" and noted that it was "certainly relevant" to how the justices decide the dispute.
The most recent time Thomas had asked a question was in a February 2016 gun rights case from Maine, as he voiced concern that people convicted of domestic-violence misdemeanors could permanently lose the right to own a firearm. In that case, Thomas was the sole dissenter when the court ruled in favor of a black Georgia death row inmate who made a similar claim.
On race issues, Thomas has been a decisive vote to restrict affirmative action programs designed to help minorities overcome past discrimination. In 2013, he was part of the majority as the court ruled 5-4 to strike down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to protect black voters in Southern states from ongoing discrimination.
'POINT OF CONTENTION'
The high court heard an appeal by Flowers of 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.
His lawyers have accused long-serving Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans of engaging in a pattern of removing black jurors that indicates an unlawful discriminatory motive.
Under long-standing law, both prosecutors and defense lawyers can dismiss - or "strike" - a certain number of prospective jurors during the selection process without giving a reason. Evans has given other reasons for striking jurors but Flowers' lawyers have said those simply masks his real racial motives.
Flowers appealed to the Supreme Court after the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2017 upheld his most recent conviction and death sentence, with his lawyers saying the history of striking black jurors in the prior trials was relevant in reviewing the most recent conviction.
Flowers was found guilty in the first three trials but each time the convictions were thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The fourth and fifth trials, in which the prosecutor excluded several black potential jurors, ended with no verdict because the jury both times failed to produce a unanimous decision. The outcome of the sixth trial, in which there were 11 white jurors and one black juror, is at issue in the case before the high court. In that trial, the prosecution accepted the first black prospective juror and then excluded the next five.
The jury in the first trial was all-white. Only one black person was included in the juries in three of the other trials.
In the third trial, the state appeals courts specifically found that Evans had intentionally excluded black jurors.
Prosecutors said Flowers was upset with the store owner for firing him and withholding his paycheck to cover the cost of batteries he had damaged before his termination. They have said Flowers returned to the store and committed the killings.
He 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 the victims except Golden were white. Each were shot in the head at close range.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley)
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