Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tonga

Monday, June 13, 2005

Miller-El v. Dretke

The Supremes knocked down another Texas death penalty prosecution this morning. In Miller-El v. Dretke, a case involving an African American defendant on trial for murder, the Supreme Court of the United States found that the prosecution had manipulated the jury pool to eliminate most other African Americans. Additionally, the Court found the prosecution's "neutral" arguments in support of its jury selection process unconvincing. The SCOTUS website should have the complete opinion available around noon today (EDT).

Hope Yen wrote the AP story for the Washington Post:

Death Row Inmate's Conviction Overturned
The Associated Press
Monday, June 13, 2005; 11:02 AM

WASHINGTON -- 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...

Justice Souter,joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, hit the Texas court hard, saying that the court's conclusion (that jury selection was not racially determined) was "unreasonable as well as erroneous."

"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...

Justice Thomas, joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, dissented. They really prefer "rational basis" to closer scrutiny, and were satisfied with the prosecution's assertions.

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.

Texas has a pretty flat learning curve regarding its criminal justice system--especially when applied to capital cases.

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.