Inmate on Texas death row to get hearing on bias claim

Supreme Court rules 8-1 in appeal on jury makeup

February 26, 2003|By Jan C. Greenburg | Jan C. Greenburg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Admonishing lower courts not to be in such a hurry to close the door on death row appeals, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a convicted killer in Texas was entitled to pursue his claim that prosecutors illegally excluded African-Americans from the jury in his 1986 murder trial.

The 8-1 decision revives the prospects of death row inmate Thomas Miller-El, who was one day from execution last spring when the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

Miller-El said prosecutors violated his constitutional rights when they struck 10 of 11 African-Americans from his jury pool. Lower courts had rejected those arguments and turned away his efforts to appeal.

In a strongly worded opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the justices said they "have no difficulty concluding" that Miller-El was entitled to make his case before a federal appeals court. The lower courts, Kennedy wrote, did not fully consider the "substantial evidence" Miller-El presented that prosecutors had purposefully kept blacks off the jury.

Yesterday's ruling paves the way for Miller-El to take that evidence to a federal appeals court as he seeks a reversal of his conviction and death sentence.

The decision comes a year after the court ruled that states cannot execute mentally retarded criminals and amid heightened national scrutiny of capital punishment.

"It sends a very clear message that the court is concerned about fairness in death penalty proceedings, and it wants serious consideration to be given to the underlying claim," said Cynthia Orr, a Texas lawyer who is co-chairman of the death penalty committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter on the court, wrote that Miller-El's arguments "rest on circumstantial evidence and speculation."

Jan Crawford Greenburg is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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