Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito echoed the thoughts many people must have had listening to In the Dark‘s second season, when he asked why the Mississippi Attorney General’s office didn’t say “enough already” and take the Curtis Flowers case from District Attorney Doug Evans.
Season two of In the Dark followed Flowers’ case from a gruesome quadruple murder at a Winona, Mississippi furniture store in 1996 to the present day, when Flowers sits on the state’s death row after a guilty verdict in his sixth — yes, sixth — murder trial. Host Madeleine Baran and her team dismantled the district attorney’s case by undermining almost every piece of evidence used to convict Flowers.
The podcast has returned with four additional episodes now that the Flowers case has found itself before the U.S. Supreme Court. This week’s episode — the second of four new episodes — recounts last week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The issue before the court is whether Evans used peremptory challenges to strike jurors on the basis of race.
In Flowers’ six trials, Evans used peremptory challenges to strike 41 of 47 potential black jurors (In one of the most impressive pieces of reporting in season two, In the Dark scanned more than 100,000 documents to determine Evans and his assistant district attorneys strike black jurors at 4.5 times the rate of white jurors). The 1986 Supreme Court case Batson v. Kentucky prohibits attorneys from striking jurors purely based on race (for more on that case, listen to “Object Anyway” from Radiolab’s More Perfect podcast).
As the court works to determine Evans’ motivation, it is aided by the “unusual and really disturbing history” (Justice Alito again) in the Flowers case. Three guilty verdicts against Flowers have been struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court, once for prosecutorial misconduct and twice because Evans violated Batson.
Those who follow the court know that Justice Alito nearly always sides with prosecutors and law enforcement, so his pointed questioning of Special Assistant Attorney General Jason Davis bodes well for those who hope to see the verdict in Flowers’ case overturned. As the court’s four liberal justices are nearly certain to side with Flowers, it will only take one justice from the court’s conservative branch to overturn the verdict.
Another promising sign for Flowers came from the newest addition to the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who saw fit to lecture Davis on the history of Batson and the effect Batson violations have on a community’s confidence in its justice system.
“Batson said: We’re going to give you the tools to eradicate [bias], so that — not just for the fairness to the defendant and to the juror, but that the community has confidence in the fairness of the system. And can you say, as you sit here today, confidently you have confidence in the — how this all transpired in this case?” Justice Kavanaugh asked.
If — as many court reporters have predicted and the oral arguments suggest — the court rules in Flowers’ favor, his death sentence will be overturned, but the case will again land in the lap of Doug Evans who will determine whether to pursue a seventh trial. Evans, who runs unopposed this fall to retain his seat as district attorney for Mississippi’s 5th Circuit, has vowed to retry Flowers if the court overturns the case. The only good news is that we may get additional episodes of In the Dark.
New episodes of In the Dark appear on Tuesdays.