Alumni Short

Sheri Lynn Johnson Wins Death Penalty Appeal at U.S. Supreme CourtIthaca, NEW YORK, June 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned the 2010 conviction of Mississippi death row inmate Curtis Flowers, who was represented by Cornell Law Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson. Flowers, who is black, had been tried six times by the same white prosecutor for a 1996 quadruple murder that he says he did not commit.

In the 7-2 ruling written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Court agreed with Flowers’s defense team—which included Professor Keir Weyble as co-counsel—that state prosecutor Doug Evans’s repeated removal of prospective black jurors constituted racial discrimination. At contention in the case was whether the Mississippi Supreme Court had failed to properly apply the precedent of the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Batson v. Kentucky in concluding that the prosecutor’s actions were not motivated by discriminatory intent.

Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court
Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court

The majority opinion was joined by the court’s four liberal justices as well as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

“We are grateful that the Supreme Court has reversed Curtis Flowers’ conviction,” said Johnson, who called the decision a “victory for everyone.”

“Seven members of the Court painstakingly analyzed the complex factual record and concluded that Doug Evan discriminated on the basis of race in a decision that reaffirms the importance of racial fairness in the administration of criminal justice, both for the defendant and for the community,” noted Johnson.

In his opinion, Kavanaugh wrote that “The numbers speak loudly. Over the course of the first four trials, there were thirty-six black prospective jurors against whom the state could have exercised a peremptory strike. The state tried to strike all thirty-six.”

“Equal justice under law requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process,” Kavanaugh continued.

“A 7-2 vote is about as close to consensus as one is likely to see in a death penalty case before this Court,” said Eduardo M. Peñalver, Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, “which speaks to the powerful persuasiveness of Sheri’s advocacy.”

Flowers has spent twenty-two years in prison, much of it on death row, and his appeal of his conviction in the sixth trial has dragged on since 2010. On March 20, his case reached the Supreme Court of the United States, where Johnson, the Mark Flanagan Professor of Law and assistant director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, argued on his behalf.

In their brief, Johnson and Weyble, Litigation director for the Cornell Death Penalty Project, emphasized that the prohibition against racial discrimination in jury selection provides important protections for the rights of both defendants and jurors, and that it prevents the undermining of public confidence in the criminal justice system. They wrote, “All of those values were diminished by the Mississippi Supreme Court’s perfunctory treatment of the evidence of discrimination in this case.”

“The quadruple homicide in this case was a terrible crime, but Curtis Flowers did not commit it,” said Johnson. “While today’s decision is extremely important, it is also important to recognize that the conviction the Supreme Court has now overturned was a product, not only of racial discrimination in jury selection, but also of a wide array of other forms of prosecutorial misconduct.”  

Johnson says it is a “travesty” that Flowers has had to endure six trials and more than two decades on death row.  “A seventh trial,” she says, “would be unprecedented, and completely unwarranted given both the flimsiness of the evidence against him and the long trail of misconduct that has kept him wrongfully incarcerated all these years. We hope that the State of Mississippi will finally disavow Doug Evans’ misconduct, decline to pursue yet another trial, and set Mr. Flowers free.”