The Supreme Court sided Tuesday with a black Texas death row inmate who claimed prosecutors stacked the jury with whites and said he was not allowed to present evidence of the alleged bias.
The high court ruled 8-1 that Thomas Miller-El should have been given an opportunity to present his evidence during his federal appeals. The court's action does not mean Miller-El will ultimately win his case.
The justices sent the case back to a lower court, where Miller-El could get a new hearing on his claims that prosecutors used their power to challenge specific jurors as a way to eliminate 10 out of 11 potential black jurors before Miller-El's trial.
The high court said it gave some weight to historical evidence uncovered by Miller-El's lawyers after his conviction. Among other things, Miller-El's lawyers claimed the Dallas district attorney's office once specifically trained prosecutors to get rid of minority juror candidates because "they almost always empathize with the accused."
His lawyers also cite a 1986 analysis by The Dallas Morning News. That study found that prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove 90 percent of the blacks eligible to serve on the juries in 15 death penalty cases from 1980 to 1986.
"Irrespective of whether the evidence could prove sufficient to support a charge of systematic exclusion of African-Americans, it reveals that the culture of the district attorney's office in the past was suffused with bias against African-Americans in jury selection," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, dissented.
"Even if we presume at this stage that the prosecutors in Miller-El's case were not part of this culture of discrimination, the evidence suggests they likely were not ignorant of it," Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Thomas said that Miller-El should not have been able to get the appeal he sought.
"Because petitioner has not shown, by clear and convincing evidence, that any preemptory strikes of black [juror candidates] were exercised because of race, he does not merit," an appeal, Thomas wrote.
Miller-El's case is unusual, and the high court's ruling is unlikely to have much wider effect. It is noteworthy, however, because prisoners, and Death Row inmates in particular, do not often win high court cases.
The court majority dealt harshly with a Texas trial judge and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Those courts had swept aside Miller-El's claims without a full hearing.
Miller-El had been scheduled to die last year for the 1985 murder of a 25-year-old hotel clerk, but the execution was put on hold when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
A second clerk was wounded and permanently paralyzed from the chest down. He identified Miller-El as his attacker at trial.
As part of the effort to prevent Miller-El's execution, his attorneys produced a videotape featuring former Dallas County prosecutors who acknowledge that race was a factor in jury selection. The tape also includes interviews with blacks who say they supported the death penalty but were blocked from serving on the Miller-El jury.
Filings also describe a 1969 memorandum used to train Dallas County prosecutors. The memo advised, "You are not looking for any member of a minority group."
A 1963 treatise by another Dallas County prosecutor warned against permitting "Jews, Negroes, Dagos and Mexicans" on a jury. Miller-El's lawyers say that way of thinking was still prevalent when Miller-El went to trial in 1986.
The only black juror chosen for Miller-El's trial told prosecutors he regarded execution as "too quick" and painless a method of punishment. "Pour some honey on them and stake them out over an ant bed," the man said.
Prosecutors questioned black potential jurors differently than whites in an attempt to elicit answers that could then be used as the basis to exclude them from the jury, Miller-El's Supreme Court appeal said.
Texas authorities say there was no discrimination, and much of the historical data that Miller-El cited is out of date or irrelevant.
The Constitution forbids race discrimination in jury selection, but until 1986, defendants faced a high legal hurdle to proving that discrimination affected their case. The Supreme Court lowered the standard that year in a ruling that made it easier to challenge suspected racial bias during jury selection.
The case is Miller-El v. Cockrell, 01-7662.