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Man Whose Conviction Was Overturned By Supreme Court After 6 Trials Is Granted Bail

Curtis Flowers (center) appears in court in Winona, Miss., on Monday for a bail hearing. His 2010 conviction on murder charges was reversed in June by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that prosecutors had excluded black people from the jury.
Rogelio V. Solis

Updated at 4:04 p.m. ET

Mississippi man Curtis Flowers was tried for the same crime six times: the murder of four people at a furniture store in 1996. He was convicted four times — but each was overturned. Two others ended in mistrials.

Earlier this year, the conviction in the sixth trial was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that prosecutors had shown an unconstitutional pattern of excluding black jurors from Flowers' trials.

Now Flowers, who is African American, is allowed to post bail, after 22 years in custody. In a hearing on Monday, a judge granted his request and set bail at $250,000, The Associated Press reports. Flowers will be required to wear an electronic monitor.

"This case is unprecedented in the history of the American legal system," Flowers' attorney Rob McDuff, of the Mississippi Center for Justice, told the judge, according to the AP. He said Flowers had spent more than two decades in prison "without a lawful conviction to justify his incarceration." An anonymous donor contributed the bail money to allow his release, McDuff said.

"Given the evidence of his innocence that continues to surface as time goes by, as well as his excellent prison conduct and the fact that he has no criminal record, bail was required by the law under the unusual circumstances of this case," McDuff said in a statement Monday. "This has been a long and costly process, and there is no need to continue wasting taxpayer money on this misguided prosecution that has been plagued by misconduct and racial discrimination."

The 4,500-person town of Winona, Miss., the site of the murders and subsequent trials, is about 48% black and 44% white. Flowers, who worked at the furniture store for only three days and had no prior criminal record, was arrested months after the murders.

Flowers' legal saga shines a harsh light on the practice of some prosecutors using race to block black people from being on juries, particularly in cases where the defendant is black.

Flowers, 49, was sentenced to death in the sixth trial in 2010.

In the Supreme Court's 7-2 majority decision overturning that conviction, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, "The numbers speak loudly. Over the course of the first four trials, there were 36 black prospective jurors against whom the State could have exercised a peremptory strike. The State tried to strike all 36."

Through each of the six trials, one man has been the driving force in the effort to convict Flowers: District Attorney Doug Evans.

The multiple convictions that Evans won against Flowers have been routinely overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court because of prosecutorial misconduct — ranging from misleading the jury about evidence that did not exist to rejecting prospective jurors based on race.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg noted when the high court overturned Flowers' conviction in June:

"The first trial had an all-white jury; the second and third each had one black juror. In the fourth and fifth trials, where the prosecutor ran out of his limited number of peremptory strikes — meaning strikes for no stated reason — there were more black jurors, and the jury deadlocked. And in the sixth trial, where the prosecutor struck five of the six prospective jurors, there was just one black juror again. In that case, the court observed, the prosecutor asked the five black prospective jurors he struck a total of 145 questions, compared with 12 questions posed to the 11 white jurors who were seated."

During the oral arguments in that case, Justice Clarence Thomas — who is famous for his reticence on the bench — posed a question for the first time in three years: He asked whether the defense had struck any white jurors. Defense lawyer Sheri Johnson said, yes, three in the sixth trial. There were no black jurors left to strike, she said.

McDuff said he and other attorneys for Flowers will move forward in the new year for the dismissal of all charges against their client.

Evans has not said whether he will seek to try Flowers a seventh time.

Circuit Judge Joseph Loper said Monday that it was "troubling" that prosecutors have not responded to a motion by the defense to drop the charges against Flowers, the AP reports.

Flowers' story was the subject of the second season of the In the Dark podcast from American Public Media.

Last month, a lawsuit was filed against Evans by four black residents in Evans' district and a local branch of the NAACP. Since taking office in 1992, Evans' office has used peremptory strikes against black jurors 4.4 times more frequently than against white jurors, the NAACP says.

"They claim that Evans is violating their constitutional rights by systematically preventing African Americans from serving on juries," APM reports. "They're not seeking monetary damages. Rather, they're asking a judge, on behalf of all of Evans' black constituents, to issue an injunction forcing Evans' office to stop."

Flowers' daughter, Crystal Ghoston, 26, told reporters at the courthouse Monday that she is looking forward to hugging her father. He was arrested when she was just 3 years old.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.