(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
The record-setting sixth trial of Curtis Flowers will be tried by eleven white jurors and one African-American juror.
It could have been worse. At the conclusion of the jury selection process, only ten black jurors remained standing. The state had fifteen peremptory strikes. Had DA Doug Evans so chosen, we could have had an all-white jury.
Doug Evans did not so choose. A jury bereft of black jurors in a county that is 45% black would have looked . . . tacky. When the prosecutor in question has a well-earned reputation for racial bias you need at least one African-American in the judicial mix.
In Flowers 3, Evans had to use all fifteen peremptory strikes on African-Americans to get eleven white jurors. This time, Winona’s black community did Evans’ work for him by stampeding, lemming-like, over a cliff. They claimed they were too convinced of Flowers’ innocence to be fair and impartial. They said they couldn’t consider the death penalty under any circumstances. They couldn’t judge a fellow human being under any circumstances.
Several of the ten black jurors left standing at the end of voir dire were barely rescued by skillful rehabilitation work from defense attorney Ray Carter. “You don’t have to commit to the death penalty,” Carter explained, “you must simply be willing to consider it, to think about it, to weigh it as an option. Do you think you could do that?”
More often than not, black jurors answered in the negative. They simply didn’t want to be on a jury with ten or eleven white-people-on-a-mission.
There was an eloquent sadness in Carter’s eyes as he returned to his chair.
Black jurors have been reluctant to serve in previous trials held in Montgomery County–but nothing like this.
Don’t get me wrong, most black jurors are perfectly sincere in their disavowal of the death penalty. In Flowers 4, the state didn’t ask for capital punishment and five black jurors were seated. All five held out for acquittal.
But something new is in the works in Flowers 6. The brutal treatment of Flowers 5 juror, James Bibbs sent a tidal wave of fear through Winona’s black community. Judge Joey Loper pitched a conniption-fit when Bibbs held out for acquittal.
The judge has a nasty temper. He doesn’t just overrule defense motions; he buries defense counsel under a great heap of pejoratives, as in: “That has to be the most bizarre motion I have ever heard.”
But the honorable Mr. Loper has nothing but praise for the perspicacity and prudence of his legal tag team partner Doug Evans, as in: “Once again, I find myself concurring entirely with the state of Mississippi”.
Ideologically, Loper and Evans are joined at the hip. Defense counsel was uncomfortable with a juror who had an opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of Mr. Flowers and had Googled the case the moment she received her summons.
“I don’t see a problem with that,” Evans said. “I mean there are liberal blogs out there and then there are legitimate blogs.” Judge Loper beamed appreciatively.
I got the feeling that the Friends of Justice blog was being consigned to the illegitimate category.
With eleven white jurors and an unabashedly pro-prosecution judge is a conviction inevitable?
Precedent isn’t promising.
Not a single white juror in five prior trials has voted to acquit Curtis Flowers.
Juries in trials with a single black juror have convicted and imposed the death penalty.
But there are positive signs. Defense counsel was able to strike most of the people with intimate ties to murder victims and a firm conviction that Curtis Flowers is a mass murderer. Again and again, jurors of this type swore they could “set aside” their feelings and opinions if the judge asked them to. This emotional naïvete was stunning.
William James, the nineteenth century American philosopher, explained why “older truths” are rarely abandoned. “Their influence is absolutely controlling,” he wrote. “Loyalty to them is the first principle – in most cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.”
Defense counsel in the Flowers is trying to convert eleven white jurors to a novel reassessment of long-accepted fact. In Winona’s respectable white community, the guilt of Curtis Flowers is an “old truth”, a maxim so well established that it passes for common sense. Getting a single juror to re-evaluate the state’s case is like trying to convert a Baptist to Islam. The new idea, if accepted, would impact an entire web of social relationships. Friendships would be lost. Business opportunities would vanish. The doors and windows of polite society would slam shut.
How much easier to ignore this new truth while abusing those who bear witness to it. This explains the contempt Judge Loper has been heaping on Ray Carter and Alison Steiner this week. They represent a new truth which, if accepted, would reduce Winona’s white civilization to ruins.
In the next few days we will be witnessing a form of spiritual warfare in the courtroom. Loper and Evans will be reassuring the jurors that the old truth deserves their continued trust. Carter and Steiner will be preaching a new truth. At least one juror must experience a Damascus Road conversion in the next few days.
The challenge is formidable but not hopeless. Several of the jurors in this case were children back in 1996 when four people were killed execution-style in Winona Mississippi. Several other jurors are relatively new to Montgomery County. One juror is African American. Half the jury lives outside the comforting rhythms of the white mainstream. If we see a come-to-Jesus moment, it will likely come from this half of the jury.
If opening arguments are any indication, Curtis Flowers’ attorneys will be preaching for conversions.