High Court Cites Racial Bias in Overturning Murder Case

The U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of a black death-row inmate in Texas and scolded prosecutors for unfairly keeping blacks off the jury. The case, which has been on appeal for nearly 20 years, is being seen as a stern warning that racial discrimination has no place in jury selection.

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Twenty years after a brutal Texas murder, the US Supreme Court has overturned a death penalty conviction. The death row inmate is black, and the court said Texas prosecutors unfairly kept blacks off the jury. NPR's John Burnett reports on a case that is seen as a stern warning against racial discrimination.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

The 14th Amendment states that no person shall be denied equal protection of the law, and that's what the Supreme Court ruled happened to Thomas Miller-El. In 1985, he and his accomplices robbed a Dallas Holiday Inn, tied up two employees and shot them, killing one and paralyzing the other. Miller-El was tried and convicted of capital murder the following year. Jim Marcus, Miller-El's appellate attorney, says he presented evidence that, up until 1980, the Dallas County district attorney's office had an instruction manual for new prosecutors on how to avoid certain classes of jurors perceived as lenient.

Mr. JIM MARCUS (Attorney): That said don't take minorities, don't take Jewish people, don't take people who are overweight. And all of these admonitions were based on, you know, stereotype: Minority people sympathize with the accused, and fat people lack discipline. I mean, it's really, you know, fairly egregious stuff.

BURNETT: Thomas Miller-El was sentenced to die by a 12-person jury that had one black member. Prosecutors had struck nine out of 10 eligible blacks with what's called a peremptory challenge where they can exclude potential jurors without having to explain why. And that was the focus of the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling yesterday ordering a new trial for Miller-El. His attorneys argued that prosecutors questioned potential black jurors more aggressively than whites and that even when blacks expressed unwavering support for the death penalty, they were passed over. Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote that based on the evidence, it blinks reality to deny that race affected prosecutors' actions. In response to the ruling, the Dallas County DA's office issued a defiant statement that the now-infamous manual was long discarded and they were race-neutral in forming the Miller-El jury. Further, the office asserts, Miller-El's guilt was never at issue, and it has not decided whether to retry him for the 20-year-old crime.

Rob Kepple, director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, points out that in nearly two decades, jury selection procedures have changed.

Mr. ROB KEPPLE (Texas District and County Attorneys Association): I think today when lawyers are trained on picking their juries, they understand that today, the courts expect you not to engage in stereotyping, to shy away from any type of stereotyping and really work to pick your jurors upon their individual qualities. And that obviously is something that wasn't done in the past.

BURNETT: While he would agree that prosecutors are more careful today about how they select jurors, Jordan Steiker, who teaches death penalty law at the University of Texas Law School, says nevertheless, the process is not color-blind.

Mr. JORDAN STEIKER (University of Texas Law School): Racism is still alive and well. I think prosecutors either consciously or unconsciously often will prefer jurors who are white, especially in cases involving white victims and minority defendants. I think that they worry about the sympathy of minority jurors toward minority defendants.

BURNETT: The Miller-El decision is the latest in a series of rebukes from the Supreme Court to lower courts on how they handle Texas death row appeals. In 2003, the high court sent the same Miller-El case back to the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, saying it had been dismissive of his protests of jury shuffling. And last year, the court overturned three more Texas death sentences, two in which jurors were not told about the defendant's learning disabilities and one in which prosecutors hid important information that might have helped the defense. Prosecutors counter, the Supreme Court overturned so many Texas death penalty convictions simply because the state leads the nation in capital punishment. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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