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Judge overturns Mississippi death penalty case, says racial bias in picking jury wasn’t fully argued

The Columbian
Published: December 17, 2023, 4:19pm

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge has overturned the death penalty conviction of a Mississippi man, finding a trial judge didn’t give the man’s lawyer enough chance to argue that the prosecution was dismissing Black jurors for discriminatory reasons.

U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills ruled Tuesday that the state of Mississippi must give Terry Pitchford a new trial on capital murder charges.

Mills wrote that his ruling is partially motivated by what he called former District Attorney Doug Evans ‘ history of discriminating against Black jurors.

A spokesperson for Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said Sunday that the state intends to appeal. Online prison records show Pitchford remained on death row Sunday at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Mills ordered the state to retry the 37-year-old man within six months, and said he must be released from custody if he is not retried by then.

Pitchford was indicted on a murder charge in the fatal 2004 robbery of the Crossroads Grocery, a store just outside Grenada, in northern Mississippi. Pitchford and friend, Eric Bullins, went to the store to rob it. Bullins shot store owner Reuben Britt three times, fatally wounding him, while Pitchford said he fired shots into the floor, court documents state.

Police found Britt’s gun in a car at Pitchford’s house. Pitchford, then 18, confessed to his role, saying he had also tried to rob the store 10 days earlier.

But Mills said that jury selection before the 2006 trial was critically flawed because the trial judge didn’t give Pitchford’s defense lawyer enough of a chance to challenge the state’s reasons for striking Black jurors.

To argue that jurors were being improperly excluded, a defendant must show that discriminatory intent motivated the strikes. In Pitchford’s case, judges and lawyers whittled down the original jury pool of 61 white and 35 Black members to a pool with 36 white and five Black members, in part because so many Black jurors objected to sentencing Pitchford to death. Then prosecutors struck four more Black jurors, leaving only one Black person on the final jury.

Prosecutors can strike Black jurors for race-neutral reasons, and prosecutors at the trial gave reasons for removing all four. But Mills found that the judge never gave the defense a chance to properly rebut the state’s justification.

“This court cannot ignore the notion that Pitchford was seemingly given no chance to rebut the state’s explanations and prove purposeful discrimination,” Mills wrote.

On appeal, Pitchford’s lawyers argued that some of the reasons for rejecting the jurors were flimsy and that the state didn’t make similar objections to white jurors with similar issues.

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Mills also wrote that his decision was influenced by the prosecution of another Black man by Evans, who is white. Curtis Flowers was tried six times in the shooting deaths of four people. The U.S. Supreme Court found Evans had improperly excluded Black people from Flowers’ juries, overturning the man’s conviction and death sentence.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh called it a “relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of Black individuals.”

In reporting on the Flowers case, American Public Media’s “In the Dark” found what it described as a long history of racial bias in jury selection by Evans.

Mississippi dropped charges against Flowers in September 2020, after Flowers was released from custody and Evans turned the case over to the state attorney general.

Mills wrote that, on its own, the Flowers case doesn’t prove anything. But he said that the Mississippi Supreme Court should have examined that history in considering Pitchford’s appeal.

“The court merely believes that it should have been included in a ‘totality of the circumstances’ analysis of the issue,” Mills wrote.