Picking fair juries

June 17, 2005

IN TWO CASES this week, the U.S. Supreme Court has reinforced the importance of eliminating racial bias in jury selection, particularly in death penalty cases. The court's rulings make clear that prosecutors must help ensure that defendants are judged impartially by their peers.

The cases involve two black defendants, one in Texas and one in California, who challenged the exclusion of blacks from their juries. In the Texas case, a 6-3 majority of the court chided the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for failing to recognize that Dallas County prosecutors had systematically excluded qualified blacks from the jury pool in the 1986 trial of Thomas Miller-El, who was charged with killing a hotel employee during a robbery. Mr. Miller-El, who was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of 11 whites and one black, had argued that the jury selection process in his case was tainted by racial discrimination. The case had come before the Supreme Court once before on the same grounds, and the court had directed the 5th Circuit to reconsider the issue of bias.

That court did not find evidence of discrimination, but the high court majority did. It held that some of the prosecutor's actions - including shuffling juror cards to put blacks at the back of the list and other forms of disparate treatment - violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and could not be viewed as racially neutral, as Texas authorities had insisted.

In another case, the court ruled 8-1 that defendants in California should not have to prove that it was "more likely than not" that prosecutors discriminated during jury selection. The court majority found that an "inference" of bias was sufficient to trigger review by a judge.

As some states, including Maryland, question whether their administration of the death penalty is racially biased, these latest court decisions are timely reminders that discrimination cannot be tolerated in any part of the criminal justice system.

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