Justices hear death penalty-race case

Convicted killer contends his rights were violated because of white jury

October 17, 2002|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Taking up a case involving the death penalty and race, the Supreme Court grappled yesterday with whether to allow a convicted killer to pursue the argument that prosecutors violated his constitutional rights when they excluded African-Americans from his jury.

The case is one of four the court will decide this term that touch on the administration of the death penalty, and it comes amid heightened scrutiny nationwide of the fairness of capital punishment.

As justices heard arguments in the Texas case yesterday, officials in Illinois continued hearings for almost all of the state's 160 prisoners on Death Row.

Intolerable extreme

Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, representing African-American inmate Thomas Joe Miller-El, told the Supreme Court that prosecutors' conduct in the case "represented an extreme that can't be tolerated."

In assembling a nearly all-white jury, prosecutors "tricked" prospective African-American jurors to get them to say they had an unfavorable view of the death penalty, Waxman said, and ultimately struck 10 of 11 blacks from the jury pool.

By contrast, prosecutors challenged only four of the 31 other potential jurors, he said.

Waxman urged the court to view the case as a "benchmark" that clearly illustrates when the use of race in jury selection runs afoul of the Constitution.

Discrimination banned

The court ruled in 1986 that the Constitution prohibits race discrimination in jury selection, and Waxman maintained that Miller-El's case could be viewed as a model for how judges should apply that decision and could provide important guidelines for lower courts.

But Gena Bunn, a Texas assistant attorney general, argued that prosecutors had legitimate reasons for striking the African-Americans from the jury pool.

"They were simply not based on race," she said, arguing that prosecutors had focused on potential jurors' views about capital punishment.

The case came about after Miller-El was convicted of killing a white Dallas motel employee during a 1985 robbery and was sentenced to death.

He raised several constitutional challenges to his conviction, including the prosecutors' use of race in jury selection.

The trial judge ruled that prosecutors had not illegally used race in Miller-El's case, and a state appeals court upheld the decision.

Miller-El then took his claim to federal court and asked a magistrate to rule that the trial court's decision was unreasonable.

But the federal magistrate concluded that the Texas judge had not acted unreasonably.

Further appeal barred

A federal appeals court subsequently ruled that Miller-El had failed to show that his constitutional rights had been substantially violated, and it refused to give him permission to appeal the lower court ruling further.

Then, just before Miller-El's scheduled execution in Texas last spring, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in his case.

Texas has executed 285 people since 1976, more than any other state.

Also yesterday, the court heard arguments on whether a gun dealer convicted of a felony in Mexico should be allowed to possess a firearm.

Federal law prohibits felons from having guns, but the dealer's lawyer, Thomas Goldstein, argued that there were exceptions to the law and that a court could grant relief.

Dinner in Mexico

The case came about in 1998, when gun dealer Thomas Lamar Bean inadvertently left ammunition in the back of his vehicle when he went to dinner across the Texas border in Mexico. He was arrested and held in Mexico for six months.

The next year, after Bean was back home in Texas, he asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to restore his gun privileges.

It refused to do so, saying that Congress, in an appropriations bill, had essentially prohibited the agency from making exceptions to the law.

Bean then filed a claim in federal court, and a trial judge ruled that he was entitled to relief.

The Bush administration asked the court to take up the case and rule that the court lacked authority to grant Bean relief.

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