Judging jurors by race is wrong
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
It was not just that 10 blacks in the jury pool for Thomas Miller-El's murder trial were removed by peremptory challenges. Or that black potential jurors were excused after giving essentially the same answers on their thoughts about the death penalty as had their white counterparts. Or that the prosecutors had "shuffled" that pool to interview whites before blacks. Or that the Dallas County, Texas, district attorney's office for years trained its prosecutors to get black, Hispanic and Jewish would-be jurors off their panels because such folks were deemed too likely to be sympathetic to defendants.
No, it wasn't any one of these circumstances. But, taken together, a 6-3 Supreme Court majority this week found it impossible to reach any conclusion other than that the lower courts, state and federal, had practiced or condoned racial discrimination in the selection of juries.
Such bias jeopardizes the very integrity of the courts, Justice David Souter wrote. And, since the lower courts had ignored a Supreme Court finding two years ago that Miller-El, a black man sentenced to die for an execution-style slaying during a robbery, be granted a hearing on his claim that blacks were systematically excluded from the jury that tried him, the high court this time overturned the conviction. Retry him or set him free, the justices ordered.
Perhaps the Supreme Court now has captured the attention of state and federal appellate courts, in Texas and elsewhere, that inexcusably have turned a blind eye to the subtle practices of jury-building that Dallas County has turned into a dark art.
Perhaps it will mean, as Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a concurring opinion, an eventual end to peremptory challenges, wherein lawyers from either side may excuse potential jury members without explanation. Such free dismissals provide perfect cover for the use of race- and gender-based stereotyping of panelists that Breyer observed to be better organized than ever before.
And long as the odds may appear against it in a state where more than 300 executions have been carried out in the past 30 years, perhaps it will signal a new awareness of a defendant's basic right to be tried by a jury of his or her peers. The court could hardly be more clear.
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
More on Miller-El
This editorial from the Cleveland Plain Dealer sums things up rather succinctly: