Editorials from Around the Country Express Concerns About Texas Death Penalty
Newspaper editorials from papers in Texas and other areas of the country praised the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Thomas Miller-El and criticized the way in which the death penalty has been implemented in Texas. Miller-El was granted a new trial in light of strong evidence of racial bias during jury selection at his original trial. Editorial excerpts follow:
New York Times
[Miller-El] is an important ruling that reiterates to all courts the importance of keeping discrimination out of jury selection.
In the landmark 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court set out guidelines for how courts should examine jury selection for evidence of discrimination. In yesterday's case [Miller-El v. Dretke], the court did just that, and found that race had repeatedly played an inappropriate role. The court found clear disparities in everything from how prospective jurors of different races were questioned to what factors the prosecution considered valid reasons for striking them. The court repeatedly rejected the prosecutors' race-neutral explanations for their actions.
It is disturbing that before the Supreme Court heard Mr. Miller-El's claim, it was denied by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas. The misconduct in this case was clear enough that the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 to reverse, with the centrist conservatives Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy joining the majority. It is a sign of how far the lower federal courts have drifted to the right that the Supreme Court had to correct this racially discriminatory prosecution.
(New York Times, June 14, 2005).
The Supreme Court reined in racial manipulation in jury selection yesterday, throwing out the capital conviction of a Texas man named Thomas Joe Miller-El.
Mr. Miller-El's case confronted the court with the question of how blatantly jury selection may be guided by race before it runs afoul of the Constitution. Prosecutors in Dallas, where Mr. Miller-El was prosecuted for a vicious murder, had a history of trying to keep blacks from jury service. A training manual in the 1960s instructed them not to "take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated." Such policies were no longer written down when Mr. Miller-El went on trial in 1986, but they lived on. ... The machinations in Mr. Miller-El's case, as the high court has now found, were obvious. Prosecutors, Justice David H. Souter writes, questioned black potential jurors differently from whites and shuffled the roster to push blacks further back in the line of eligibility. Of 11 who were nonetheless deemed qualified, prosecutors then struck 10 using peremptory challenges.
[T]his ruling sends a strong message to prosecutors and lower courts alike that such manipulations are not tolerable.
(Washington Post, June 14, 2005).
Dallas Morning News
The record shows that Mr. Miller-El, who is black, got a raw deal at trial. Prosecutors used various tricks to effectively eliminate 91 percent of blacks in his jury pool.
District Attorney Bill Hill's office can't be surprised at the ruling, considering that the court had telegraphed this punch. In an earlier round on this case, the court branded the district attorney's office of 20 years ago as "suffused with bias."
[P]rotecting one man's right to trial by a jury of peers protects us all.
Their long wait for justice in the case is a result of prosecutorial shenanigans that were only shrewd in the short term. A solid justice system is built on a far broader foundation.
(Dallas Morning News, June 14, 2005).
In the manner of a long-suffering parent faced with a disingenuously obstreperous child, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday told the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — one more time — how wrong it was in interpreting yet another major principle in capital-punishment cases.
Racial discrimination in jury selection, no matter how Texas prosecutors tried to hide the ugly practice, is unconstitutional, the court ruled, reversing an almost 20-year-old murder conviction from Dallas County.
"It blinks reality" to find that prospective black jurors were struck by prosecutors for any reason other than their race, the court said. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' finding otherwise was "wrong to a clear and convincing degree." The state court's "conclusion was unreasonable as well as erroneous."
Texas' full-throated resort to the death penalty demands that all procedures pertaining to this maximum punishment be applied with the utmost, unquestioned prosecutorial integrity and that those operations are reviewed by courts that can acknowledge what may be going on.
(Houston Chronicle, June 14, 2005).
The Washington Post Urges Maryland to Continue Moratorium
In an editorial responding to Maryland's death penalty study that revealed racial and geographic bias in how the state applies capital punishment, the Washington Post urged Governor-elect Robert Ehrlich to reconsider plans to abandon the state's moratorium on executions:
Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised to lift his state's moratorium on executions regardless of what scholars at the University of Maryland found concerning the influence of race and geography on the imposition of the death penalty. He should have waited, and maybe now he will reconsider. For the report, requested by Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- who froze executions while the study was underway -- makes clear that capital punishment is applied in a fashion that sends a deeply corrosive message: Maryland cares more -- a great deal more -- about the deaths of white people, particularly when killed by black people, than it does about the deaths of blacks. If Mr. Ehrlich carries out his promise, he will be saying, in effect, that this doesn't bother him.
Mr. Ehrlich has said that the study won't affect his decision, because he means to review death sentences rigorously on a case-by-case basis. But that misses the point. These data demonstrate that a given case can be rock solid and still be no more worthy of death than one in which capital punishment was never even sought. It is possible, in other words, for the state to be both rigorous and discriminatory. Is this really the Maryland that Mr. Ehrlich wants?
(Washington Post, January 8, 2003)
From The Indiana Journal Gazette
And to our everlasting shame, the punishment falls disproportionately upon poor, black defendants than on whites. Society isn't protected. Ask yourself. Do you feel safer with Gary Burris dead? Executed two years ago by lethal injection, Burris was the most recent of six men put to death in Indiana since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977. But if the state hadn't killed Burris, it would have kept him in prison the rest of his life. Indiana now permits courts to sentence the most violent criminals to life in prison - wihtout the possibility of parole....For most lawmakers, it would take a lot of courage to admit the futility and inherently cruel nature of executions and reverse themselves. Surely Sen. Mills isn't the only one in the legislature with that kind of courage.
(Indiana Journal Gazette, 2/3/99)