Civil Rights Groups Sue Mississippi Prosecutor For Illegally Striking Black Jurors
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and MacArthur Justice Center are filing a class action lawsuit against Doug Evans on behalf of every potential Black juror in the district.
Mississippi District Attorney Doug Evans was hit with a proposed class action lawsuit today on behalf of every Black person eligible to serve on a jury in his district. The complaint, filed in federal court, claims his office strikes Black jurors at alarmingly high rates.
Evans, who presides over seven counties, drew a harsh rebuke from the U.S. Supreme Court in June, when the justices reversed Curtis Flowers’s murder conviction on the grounds that Evans intentionally excluded African Americans from the jury in Flowers’s sixth trial. Flowers was accused of killing four people in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, in 1996, but has always maintained his innocence.
Evans tried him six times. Several of his convictions were overturned by courts because of jury bias or prosecutorial misconduct; others ended in mistrials. A trial court ruled that the district attorney illegally struck a Black juror in Flowers’s second trial, and the Mississippi Supreme Court found that Evans eliminated Black potential jurors during the jury selection process in his third trial.
The lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, claims that since Evans became lead prosecutor for Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court District in 1992, he and his assistants have struck prospective Black jurors 4.4 times more frequently than white jurors, “a rate that is unparalleled in any available study.”
“The honor and privilege of jury service is a defining feature of what it means to be an American citizen,” the complaint states. “When state or local officials bar a citizen from service because he or she is Black, that discriminatory act is no mere indignity. It is an assertion that the prospective juror is inferior—a second-class citizen who cannot be entrusted with the responsibilities of full citizenship.”
Nichole Young, 40, a Black resident of Grenada, Mississippi, was called for jury duty but struck during Flowers’s third trial in 2004. She told The Appeal that she was disappointed when she found out she was not selected. She remembers making preparations for her parents to babysit her young daughter if she were to stay in the required hotel for the duration of the trial.
“I was open to hear the evidence and hear the case,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Young said she did not understand why she was struck, and neither did the state Supreme Court. Though Evans said he was striking Young over her position on the death penalty, the court ruled that Evans’s reason was “suspect” because Young held the same views on capital punishment as two of the white jurors who were ultimately chosen.
Since 1986, it has been unlawful for prosecutors or defense attorneys to strike potential jurors because of their race. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky that peremptory strikes based on race violate a defendant’s rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are given two opportunities to strike prospective jurors. First, they can challenge them for cause, such as prior experience in a similar case or another finding that indicates an obvious prejudice. Then, prosecutors and defense attorneys are given a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” which they can use to strike people for any reason other than race.
“The problem here is that Doug Evans and his office is using them because of race,” said Chris Kemmitt, an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund working on the lawsuit. “The Supreme Court has made clear that he’s not allowed to do what he’s doing, and for 25 years, he’s done the exact thing he’s not supposed to do.”
According to the lawsuit, if a Black juror isn’t struck for a cause, there is a 50 percent chance that Evans’s office will strike that person with a peremptory challenge. But if a prospective juror is white, there’s just an 11 percent chance of being struck. Over the course of Flowers’s six trials, Evans removed 41 of 42 possible Black jurors.
Despite statistics like these, Jim Craig, director of the Louisiana office of the MacArthur Justice Center, said the rulings against Evans were far from guaranteed. It’s incredibly difficult and rare to get a finding of jury discrimination under Batson, he said. The fact that multiple courts have found Evans to have violated Batson is “kind of like being on the all-star team of racial discrimination.”
Evans was elected district attorney in 1992 and has been trying Flowers since 1997. Last year, American Public Media released a season of the investigatory podcast “In The Dark” focusing on Flowers’s case and Evans’s prosecutorial misconduct.
Reporters with the podcast pulled records from 225 trials that Evans has prosecuted and collected data on Evans’s jury discrimination, including all of the statistics used in the class action lawsuit.
Though Flowers is the most high-profile case that Evans has prosecuted, attorneys said his misconduct as a district attorney is more pervasive. Alison Steiner, a public defender who represented Flowers in his fifth and sixth trials, said she defended another client who also claimed that Evans unlawfully struck Black jurors. In the capital murder trial for that defendant, Terry Pitchford, Evans came up with “reasons that were both off-the-wall and affirmatively humiliating” to strike Black jurors, Steiner said. In one case, for instance, he claimed a potential juror was a “known drug user.” In another, he quoted a police captain who allegedly said that another potential juror “obviously has mental problems.”
In the same trial, Evans also said that another potential juror, an unmarried Black father in his 20s is “too closely related” to a man he believed was guilty of capital murder, simply by virtue of his demographics.
“I think [Evans] made categorical assumptions about who he wanted as a juror, and that was almost always jurors who looked like him and his family,” Steiner added, explaining that although Evans is an outlier, the problem is common in Mississippi. “I think there’s been a long-standing assumption that white jurors are going to do better for the prosecution than Black ones.”
Research has shown that a jury’s demographics does affect conviction rates. A study of North Carolina juries by economics professor Francis Flanagan found that for every white male added to a jury, a prosecutor measurably increases the probability that the jury will convict someone, and that probability increases if the defendant is Black. For every Black male added to a jury, the odds of an acquittal for defendants of all races increases. That held true in Flowers’s trials; any time there was more than one Black juror, the case ended in a hung jury.
Studies have shown that racially diverse juries are better for the cause of justice: They are more likely to have accurate deliberation discussion and fairer verdicts than all-white ones. White jurors on diverse juries were more likely to discuss racism than those on all-white juries, the same study found.
According to the lawsuit, Evans’s practice of striking Black jurors is not the only indication of his racial bias. When Evans first ran for district attorney in the early 1990s, he campaigned at events sponsored by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group formed from the membership list of the White Citizens’ Councils that were formed to fight school desegregation in the South in the 1950s and ’60s.
Evans was up for re-election last week, but nobody stepped forward to run against him, so he ran unopposed. As a result, Kemmitt said, it’s even more important that the class action lawsuit brings attention to Evans’s conduct and helps hold him accountable.
“There’s nothing to stop him from continuing to use his office as a means of discriminating against Black prospective jurors and functionally rendering them second-class citizens, other than intervention by a federal court at this point,” Kemmitt said.
Craig said he hopes the lawsuit can shift the burden of having to prove Evans’s discrimination from individual defendants to the community, which can proactively point out and potentially fix the problem.
“He really is so shameless with his practice of striking jurors,” Craig said. “This is probably a lawsuit that has needed to be filed for a long time.”