TUPELO • Curtis Flowers may not be the only black defendant to have been denied an impartial jury of his peers in a courtroom in Mississippi. Fresh research suggests that discrimination in the jury selection process may be widespread in a Mississippi judicial district – the same judicial district where Curtis Flowers has been tried six times for murder.
Two professors at Western Michigan University recently published a study concluding that African Americans are four times as likely to be struck from serving on a jury than white people in Mississippi’s fifth judicial district. This is the same judicial district where the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned the murder conviction of Flowers on the grounds that a prosecutor intentionally struck black people from serving on a jury solely on the basis of their race.
Whitney DeCamp, a professor of sociology at Western Michigan University, is one of the professors who conducted the study. He initially decided to delve into the topic after listening to highly acclaimed journalism podcast “In the Dark,” which is produced by APM Reports.
“I was listening to that podcast, and that was last summer,” Whitney DeCamp told the Daily Journal. “I got to the episode where they mentioned the peremptory challenges. As they were explaining it, I was thinking about what I could do.”
Peremptory challenges are used in a trial to eliminate potential jurors without attorneys having to give a reason for striking them from the jury pool. However, in the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court Court case, the nation’s highest court determined in Batson v. Kentucky, that someone cannot be excluded from the jury simply on the basis of their race or gender. The precedent that resulted from this case is now referred to as a Batson challenge or Batson violation.
Whitney DeCamp conducted the study by reviewing 89 different trials within the judicial district between the years of 1992 and 2012, where he closely examined the questions that were asked to the jury pool.
“By using the questions that were asked during the jury selection process, I’m able to find two different people who answer questions in very similar ways but are different races,” Whitney DeCamp said.
After he reviewed the data, he wanted someone to assist him with examining the racial bias aspect of the case, so he turned to Elise DeCamp, an anthropology professor and an instructor at the university’s Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies, who also happens to be his wife.
Elise DeCamp began studying Batson violations and the jury selection process, and she discovered that a lot of race-neutral justifications were often socioeconomic factors, which is often connected to underlying issues of structural racism.
She told the Daily Journal she tried to figure out if the reason for striking potential black jurors at a higher rate was a result of “deep psychological bias,” but she said there was not enough data to explore that option.
“But, there is plenty of evidence to support discriminatory decision making,” she said.
Both of the authors of the report believe this issue goes beyond just the state level and plan on looking into more studies and data to see if this persists throughout the entire American South in addition to Mississippi.
“There’s a strong body of evidence that shows this bias exists,” Whitney DeCamp said. “I think we need more legal scholars to weigh in on solutions.”
Cliff Johnson, the director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and a law professor at the University of Mississippi, told the Daily Journal that there can be different uses for lawyers for the prosecution and the defense to strike people from the jury pool.
Johnson said the first instance where a lawyer can strike a person from serving on the jury is during the first round, which is mostly filled with routine strikes, where someone would be removed if the court discovers they can’t be impartial or if they aren’t a U.S. citizen.
“After those people are removed, then the lawyers from the prosecution and defense can use peremptory challenges,” Johnson said. “These are strikes that you make that don’t require the lawyer to provide any reason for removing that person from the jury pool.”
However, lawyers can object to peremptory challenges if they think a pattern is occurring that shows people are only being struck on behalf of their race or gender. Then, a judge would rule on the objection.
Johnson said to say that the current jury selection system eliminates all forms of bias is a “gross overstatement, and it’s important to provide criminal defendants with fair trials and that jurors only make decisions based solely on evidence presented in court.
“While the current system isn’t perfect, it’s effectiveness could be greatly improved if lawyers and judges committed themselves to ensuring that peremptory challenges are indeed exercised in a manner consistent with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
Flowers is currently incarcerated at the Winston-Choctaw County Regional Correctional Facility and is facing the possibility of a seventh trial within the same judicial district.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Elise DeCamp was the director of the Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies at Western Michigan University. The article has now been updated to correctly state that she is an instructor at the institute.