Court doors closed to NAACP suit over Black juror denials

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal appeals court has found that the NAACP has no standing to sue a Mississippi prosecutor accused of routinely rejecting Black jurors in criminal cases.

District Attorney Doug Evans has been in office since 1992, and his jury selection tactics have been scrutinized for years. His exclusion of Black jurors in one high-profile murder case caused the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction of Curtis Flowers in June 2019, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh citing a “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals.”

The Attala County branch of the NAACP and four Black voters sued Evans months later, asking the courts to declare that the prosecutor’s jury selection practices violate the constitutional rights of prospective jurors such as themselves. They also requested an injunction to prevent Evans and his staff from making race-based jury strikes.

U.S. District Judge Debra Brown acknowledged the plaintiffs’ claims against Evans may have merit, but she dismissed their case in September 2020, saying an injunction would put the federal court in the improper role of conducting an “ongoing audit” of current and future state court proceedings. She also said those who suspect a prosecutor of race-based jury exclusions can make challenges in state courts.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision in its ruling Thursday. The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because they “have not demonstrated a ‘real and immediate threat’ or a ‘substantial risk’” that Evans could strike them from jury service because of their race.

The appeals panel noted that only one of the plaintiffs had ever been called for potential jury duty, and was dismissed after saying she could not support the death penalty in one of Flowers’ trials — a permissible reason to exclude someone from a jury.

In a dissent, Judge Gregg Costa wrote that the percentage of Americans who show up for jury duty is “staggeringly low,” but that the people who sued Evans represent a “refreshing departure” by being willing to serve.

“And these Americans seeking to perform their civic duty are just as likely — and actually more likely — to be called for jury duty in the near future than plaintiffs in other cases we have allowed prospective jurors to pursue,” Costa wrote.

The Associated Press left a phone message Friday for Evans at his office in Grenada, Mississippi, seeking his response. Evans, whose office covers seven counties in northern Mississippi, is one of six candidates running in a nonpartisan election in November for a state circuit judgeship.

Flowers was tried six times in the 1996 shooting deaths of four people at a furniture store in Winona, with four convictions and two mistrials. He has always maintained his innocence. Flowers remained in prison for six months after the Supreme Court overturned his final conviction because he was still under indictment, and he was released in December 2019 after a judge set bond.

Mississippi dropped charges against Flowers in September 2020, months after Evans turned the case over to the state attorney general’s office.

The Supreme Court ruling that led to Flowers’ freedom came after American Public Media’s “In the Dark” investigated the case. The podcast recorded jailhouse informant Odell Hallmon in 2017 and 2018 recanting his testimony that Flowers had confessed to him. It also presented an analysis finding a long history of racial bias in jury selection by Evans.

Flowers filed his own lawsuit against Evans and three investigators in September 2021, seeking unspecified damages. Flowers’ suit is still pending. It says Evans and the investigators engaged in misconduct, including pressuring witnesses to fabricate claims against Flowers.

In March 2021, a judge ordered Mississippi to pay Flowers $500,000 for wrongful imprisonment — the maximum under a state law that limits such payments to $50,000 a year for 10 years.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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