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Supreme Court Overturns Death Row Conviction in Texas

Monday, June 13, 2005


The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a black death row inmate who said Texas prosecutors unfairly stacked his jury with whites, issuing a harsh rebuke to the state that executes more people than any other.

The 6-3 ruling Monday ordered a new trial for Thomas Miller-El, who challenged his conviction for the 1985 murder of a 25-year-old Dallas motel clerk. It was the second time justices reviewed the case after a lower court refused to reconsider Miller-El's claims.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was wrong to reaffirm the conviction by a state court in light of the strong evidence of prejudice during jury selection, justices said.

"This is another clear example of the court's newfound interest in trying to ensure that capital trials are conducted more fairly than they have been in the past," said CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen.

"I think this is going to ripple across the country, especially in states where capital convictions and death sentences are the norms," Cohen added. "I think it's a strong message from the court that prosecutors can't fool around with jury selection in order to exclude certain people based upon race."

In the death penalty case, Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority, said the state court's conclusion that the prosecutors' strikes of people from the jury pool was "not racially determined is shown up as wrong to a clear and convincing degree; the state court's conclusion was unreasonable as well as erroneous."

In the opinion, Souter noted that black jurors were questioned more aggressively about the death penalty, and the pool was "shuffled" at least twice by prosecutors, apparently to increase the chances whites would be selected.

He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer."The prosecutors' chosen race-neutral reasons for the strikes do not hold up and are so far at odds with the evidence that pretext is the fair conclusion, indicating the very discrimination the explanations were meant to deny," Souter wrote.

"At least two of the jury shuffles conducted by the state make no sense except as efforts to delay consideration of black jury panelists," Souter said, adding that it "blinks reality" to deny jurors were struck because they were black.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Texas has executed over one-third of the more than 900 people put to death in the United States.

Justices last year issued stinging reversals in three cases involving Texas death penalty convictions on various grounds, a striking number for a conservative-leaning court that generally favors capital punishment. All the cases involved black defendants.

Miller-El contends that Dallas County prosecutors had a long history of excluding blacks from juries and pointed to training manuals that were distributed to prosecutors from the 1960s into the early 1980s. The manuals advised prosecutors to remove blacks or Jews from death penalty juries on the theory that those groups would be more sympathetic to criminal defendants.

At trial, he was convicted by a 12-member jury that included one black. Prosecutors struck nine of the 10 blacks eligible to serve.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that Texas prosecutors had offered enough evidence that exclusions were made for reasons other than race.

For instance, the state's explanation that jurors were struck based on their hostility to the death penalty is plausible, and the alleged racial motivation behind prosecutors' decision to shuffle the jury pool is only speculative, wrote Thomas, the court's only black member.

"In view of the evidence actually presented to the Texas courts, their conclusion that the state did not discriminate was eminently reasonable," Thomas wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.

Last year, the Supreme Court overturned two Texas death sentences because jurors were not told of the defendants' learning disabilities. They were LaRoyce Lathair Smith, convicted for the 1991 killing of a Taco Bell manager in Dallas, and Robert Tennard, charged with killing a Houston neighbor in 1985.

The court also lifted Delma Banks' death sentence and delivered a strong criticism of Texas officials and lower courts, saying that prosecutors had hid crucial information that might have helped Banks' case.

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Click on the link below for the text of the opinion.

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