TUPELO • Brian Rigby of Tupelo has watched four juries convict and sentence Curtis Flowers to death for the 1996 killing of his mother and three other people at a Winona furniture store.
Friday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction and death sentence because of a prosecutor’s efforts to keep African Americans off the jury. Flowers, who has spent the last 22 years in prison and turned 49 last month, has already been tried six times and now could face a seventh trial.
“I’ve been to all six trials. (The Supreme Court ruling) was a punch in the gut, to say the least,” Rigby said. “We’ve got to keep fighting. The evidence against him is overwhelming. All the evidence points to one person and one person alone – Curtis Flowers.
“Absolutely there needs to be a seventh trial.”
Prosecutors say Flowers was a disgruntled former employee responsible for killing Tardy Furniture Store owner Bertha Tardy, 59; bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, 45; delivery man Robert Golden, 42; and employee Derrick “Bobo” Stewart, 16. All four were found inside the store on the morning of July 16, 1996. About $300 was found missing from the store after the killings.
“Four incredible people lost their lives that day,” Rigby said. “They were just working, trying to make a living and not hurting anyone. And a lot of people seem to forget that (victim) Robert Golden was black.”
In the 7-2 decision handed down Friday, the high court said the removal of black prospective jurors violated the rights of Flowers.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the court’s majority opinion. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.
In Flowers’ sixth trial, the jury was made up of 11 whites and one African American. Fifth Circuit Court District Attorney Doug Evans struck five black prospective jurors.
In the earlier trials, three convictions were tossed out, including one when the prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury. In the second trial, the judge chided Evans for striking a juror based on race. Two other trials ended when jurors couldn’t reach unanimous verdicts.
“The numbers speak loudly,” Kavanaugh said in a summary of his opinion that he read in the courtroom, noting that Evans had removed 41 of the 42 prospective black jurors over the six trials. “We cannot ignore that history.”
In dissent, Thomas called Kavanaugh’s opinion “manifestly incorrect” and wrote that Flowers presented “no evidence whatsoever of purposeful race discrimination.”
In the course of selecting a jury, lawyers can excuse a juror merely because of a suspicion that a particular person would vote against their client. Those are called peremptory strikes, and they have been the focus of the complaints about discrimination.
The Supreme Court tried to stamp out discrimination in the composition of juries in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986. The court ruled then that jurors couldn’t be excused from service because of their race and set up a system by which trial judges could evaluate claims of discrimination and the race-neutral explanations by prosecutors.
Kavanaugh said there is evidence that at least one prospective black juror for the sixth trial, Carolyn Wright, was similarly situated to white jurors and was improperly excused by Evans.
“The trial court clearly erred in ruling that the state’s peremptory strike of Wright was not motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Thomas, the only black on the high court, disagreed sharply, saying that juror “would have been stricken by any competent attorney.”
Rigby, who has learned a lot about the justice system over the last two decades, said the defense has also used the jury selection process to their advantage.
“Montgomery County is not a big county,” Rigby said. “It’s getting harder to find someone who has never heard about this.
“The defense doesn’t want to move it to another county. They want to keep it right there and keep getting hung juries.”
One way to remove the stain of past jury selection and prosecutorial problems would be for state Attorney General Jim Hood’s office to take over prosecution. But under state law, that can only happen if Evans steps aside and asks the state to take over.
While Evans has been adamant in the past that this is his case, if he did step down, Rigby would not be opposed.
“I think Doug Evans has done a good job,” Rigby said. “The last trial was done right. There was nothing wrong with it.
“I would not have a problem with the Attorney General’s office taking over as long as Doug Evans and his team were involved. They were the ones who investigated it.”
When asked about the decision, Hood, who is running for governor, said the decision to retry or to ask for help rests with Evans.
“The Court has remanded the case for retrial,” Hood said. “It will be the duty of the district attorney to re-evaluate the case. If the decision is to retry the case, I am confident the Court’s guidance will be followed.”