WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court, acting on a case that has become a cause celebre among capital punishment opponents, overturned the death sentence of a long-serving Texas inmate who claimed prosecutors played dirty and withheld evidence at his trial.
The court's action, announced Tuesday, came in the case of a man who came within minutes of execution before the body stepped in last year to stop it.
Delma Banks (search), one of the country's longest-serving death row inmates, was sentenced to die for the 1980 killing of a 16-year-old former co-worker at a fast food restaurant. Prosecutors said Banks wanted the victim's car, and shot the teenager three times "for the hell of it."
The high court's 7-2 ruling means Banks can continue to press his appeals in lower courts.
Banks maintains he is innocent, and that he was framed by lying witnesses who were bought off by the state.
Banks was able to document how prosecutors kept quiet as key witnesses against Banks lied on the stand, and how the state hid those witnesses' links to police through round after round of appeals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (search) wrote for the high court majority.
"When police or prosecutors conceal significant exculpatory or impeaching material, it is ordinarily incumbent on the state to set the record straight," Ginsburg wrote for the high court majority.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Stephen Breyer fully agreed with Ginsburg.
"A rule declaring 'prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,' is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process," Ginsburg said.
Banks claimed his original lawyer failed to present evidence about Banks' family and background that might have persuaded a jury to spare Banks a death sentence, but the Supreme Court said it did not need to review that claim in order to lift the death sentence.
The facts of the Banks case are tangled and unusual, meaning that Tuesday's ruling in his favor may have little effect on other death row inmates or on future prosecutions.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia did not agree that Banks' jury would have spared him a death sentence had it known that a key witness was a paid informant, but they still would have sent his case back to a federal appeals court for further consideration.
"The jury knew that Banks had murdered a 16-year-old on a whim, had violently attacked and threatened a relative shortly before the murder, and was willing to assist another individual in committing armed robberies," Thomas wrote for the two.
Banks' backers, including former FBI Director William Sessions (search) and a group of former judges, say Banks' case is a textbook example of the wrong way to run a capital trial.
Banks was scheduled to die last March, and was nine minutes away from execution when the Supreme Court stepped in and agreed to hear his case.
Throughout 24 years of court fights, the parents of Richard Whitehead have insisted on Banks' guilt while Banks and his mother have insisted on his innocence.
The Whiteheads were waiting at a Texas prison the night Banks was to die.
The case is Banks v. Dretke, 02-8286.