(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.)
While Winona’s black community runs scared, would-be jurors are running a scam.
It started early. District Attorney Doug Evans was working through his standard voir dire questions. “Anything you’ve heard outside the courtroom needs to be dropped at the door,” he told the six dozen jurors remaining in the jury venire. “Does anyone think they couldn’t do that?”
An earnest-looking white woman raised her hand. “I don’t think I could,” she said. She had formed an opinion about the case, she explained, and no evidence she heard in the courtroom could possibly change her mind.
A black woman’s hand shot into the air. “I don’t think I could either,” she reported.
Seconds later, three more black jurors were saying the same thing.
Then the prosecutor asked if there was anyone who didn’t feel they could stand in judgment of another human being.
Eleven hands were raised, two white and nine black.
Ray Carter, Mr. Flowers lead counsel, used all his lawyerly skills to rehabilitate most of these people—if only for the time being. Most of them were desperate to avoid jury duty.
“Mr. Flowers is not guilty,” Carter told his captive audience. “In fact, Mr. Flowers is innocent.”
“This is improper,” Doug Evans roared, his voice dripping with indignation.
Carter was undeterred. He had expected this response.
“Judge,” he explained calmly, “I don’t want anyone to think that just because Curtis Flowers has been tried over and over again, that he’s guilty.”
Then the black attorney turned his attention to the jurors who claimed they couldn’t stand in judgment. Carter knew what they were thinking. Most of them didn’t believe Curtis Flowers was guilty, but they feared a powerful backlash from leading lights within the white community if they voted their conscience.
Almost all the “couldn’t-sit-in-judgment” people are economically dependent on influential white people, but it goes deeper than that. They wonder what would happen if their children or their grandchildren got cross-ways with the law. Would the authorities retaliate against the-guy-that-hung-the-jury-in-2010? Maybe not, but how can you be sure?
“I know some of you are uncomfortable being here,” Carter said. “But sometimes in life we are asked to do things we don’t like to do.”
Carter called one of the jurors who used the can’t-sit-in-judgment dodge by name. “Did you tell Mr. Evans you couldn’t sit in judgment, or did you just say you didn’t want to?”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t,” the woman explained, “I said I didn’t want to.”
Several black jurors adjusted their earlier comments, but others refused to budge. “I couldn’t do it,” one woman explained. “The ones who are in there, the decision that they would make, I couldn’t agree with it.”
Translation: “All those white folks are going to convict, I wouldn’t be able to go along, and I’m afraid I’d pay dearly. Either that, or I’d cave in to pressure and hate myself for the rest of my life.”
Most of the remaining white jurors are sincere Christians struggling to do the right thing. Everyone in their social world believes Curtis is guilty. It’s settled orthodoxy, like believing in God. A healthy percentage of white jurors freely admit that, from where they sit, Curtis Flowers looks guilty and no amount of evidence is going to change that belief.
Another subset of white jurors is capable of maintaining an open-mind on the guilt-innocence issue. They live on the borders of Winona’s social mainstream and haven’t been directly affected by the wagon-circling and the rush to judgment.
Then we have the smiling members of the juror class. These folks are desperate for a conviction but know they can’t admit as much. They attend church with the victims’ families, they see them socially, and, back in the day, they went to school with them. Nonetheless, they could put all that aside. They could wipe their minds of all prejudgments and remove every twinge of empathy and compassion from their hearts.
These men and women are perjuring themselves to get on the jury.
But the slightest suggestion that these folks might be less than sincere is greeted with howls of protest (literally) from Evans and Loper. If white jurors claim to be fair and impartial, they are.
At one point, Ray Carter tried to explain to the jurors that white people sometimes have trouble identifying black people, and vice versa.
Doug Evans bellowed his objection and Judge Loper sustained. “This trial isn’t about black and white,” Loper sermonized, “it’s about right and wrong and it’s about guilt and innocence.”
Really? Does the Judge believe his own rhetoric?
On some level, I think he does. Loper spent most of Day Two defending the white con artists working the room. Loper and Evans worked like experienced tag team partners.
There is something unnerving about DA Evans and his pet judge. Joey Loper lives in a world of legal platitudes and fair-and-impartial jurors who know instinctively when the state has passed the threshold of reasonable doubt.
Race is never an issue in Loperland. All-white juries are fine and dandy because race doesn’t matter. State witnesses can be trusted because they’re just doing their civic duty (at $30,000 a pop).
In Loperland, jurors work in pristine isolation from their peers—there is no such thing as jury psychology or a herd mentality, just earnest citizens motivated by persuasive evidence.
In Loperland, race is a myth and social class is a mirage. There is no history and no sociology.
In Loperland, prosecutors always operate in good faith, defendants are always guilty and defense attorneys (if they know what’s good for them) yield gracefully to the inevitable.
But while Judge Loper and DA Evans turn a blind eye to the obvious, I am beginning to wonder if a credible jury can be selected from this kind of venire.