Court sides with Texas death row inmate who claimed racial bias

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a black death row inmate deserves a new chance to press his claim that prosecutors stacked his jury with whites and death penalty supporters.

The 8-1 ruling is a rare example of the conservative-leaning court agreeing that a death row inmate may have been treated unfairly at trial.

Thomas Miller-El claims Dallas County prosecutors had a long history of excluding blacks from juries on the theory they were more likely to side with a black defendant.

Miller-El's lawyers said Dallas prosecutors were once specifically trained to get rid of minority juror candidates because "they almost always empathize with the accused."

'Suffused with bias'

"Irrespective of whether the evidence could prove sufficient to support a charge of systematic exclusion of African-Americans, it reveals that the culture of the district attorney's office in the past was suffused with bias against African-Americans in jury selection," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, dissented. He said Miller-El did not prove black jurors were excluded because of their race.

Death penalty cases have been among the most divisive on the court, though the split among justices isn't the same in all cases.

Last year, the most conservative justices dissented when the court voted 6-3 to exempt the mentally retarded from the death penalty. An unlikely alliance of seven justices, conservative and liberal, voted last year to overturn the capital punishment laws of states in which judges, not juries, had the final say over whether to sentence someone to death.

Execution on hold

Miller-El had been scheduled to die last year for the 1985 murder of a 25-year-old hotel clerk, but the execution was put on hold when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. A second clerk, who was wounded and permanently paralyzed from the chest down, identified Miller-El as his attacker at trial.

Eight justices said Miller-El should have had an opportunity to present his racial bias claim during his federal appeals. The court's action does not mean Miller-El will ultimately win his case, only that he gets a new hearing.

Still, Jim Marcus, one of Miller-El's lawyers, called the decision a significant victory.

The court majority said prosecutors used their power to strike potential jurors in removing nine out of 10 blacks eligible to sit on Miller-El's 1986 jury. Prosecutors had 14 chances to strike jurors without explaining why, and used 10 of them to exclude blacks, the court noted.

"Happenstance is unlikely to produce this disparity," the justices said.

The justices also noted that blacks and whites were questioned differently about their views on the death penalty. Most blacks heard a detailed account of what would happen to Miller-El when he was executed, and then were asked whether they could vote to execute someone. Only 6 percent of white potential jurors were given the same information.

In a separate case Tuesday, the Bush administration urged the court to put new limits on federal appeals involving claims of bad lawyering, an issue in many death row cases.

Joseph Massaro, the convicted hit man at the center of the argument, should not be given a new round of appeals to claim he was poorly represented, the government said. Massaro, who was sentenced to life in prison, did not make that claim in his initial appeals.

In speeches, Ginsburg and O'Connor have expressed concern about the quality of lawyers available to poor defendants facing the death penalty, but the court has recently sided with prosecutors in two cases involving bad lawyer claims. Another such case comes before the court next month.

Massaro's case will be decided later this year.

The cases are Miller-El v. Cockrell, 01-7662 and Massaro v. United States, 02-1559.

On the Net:

Supreme Court: (For Tuesday's rulings, click on opinions, then OT 2002 latest slip opinions, and then on the individual cases.)

Miller-El case:

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