This article originally appeared in The
Texas Civil Rights Review, under the title, “Race Bias and
the Death Penalty One More Time: The Supreme Court Decision on Texas
Death Row Prisoner, Thomas Miller-El.”
In the recent dispute between Supreme Court justices
over the question of race discrimination in jury selection, we find
two warring camps of legal theory.
By issuing its order to give one death row prisoner
a new trial in Texas, the court majority seems to be forging a legal
theory that can advance the long, good fight for racial justice.
On the other side are some truly dangerous leanings.
In the logical dispute between a six-Justice majority
led by David H. Souter and a three-Justice dissent led by Clarence
Thomas we find the majority holding prosecutors strictly to account
for the reasons they actually give when explaining under oath why
theyexercised peremptory strikes against black candidates for jury
duty. What the prosecutor actually says about his or her reasons
is what the majority tests for soundness. On the dissenting side,
however, we find that when prosecutors give faulty reasons explaining
why they were thinking non-racially, Justice Thomas asks the Supreme
Court to look deeper into the record to see if more plausible non-racial
accounts might be found.
In death penalty cases, which logical method seems
better for the Supreme Court to adopt: demanding that prosecutors
give coherent reasons the first time when asked to show why their
peremptory strikes were not racially motivated? Or shall we instead
allow prosecutors to get close enough for government work, assuring
them that the ruling minds of the judicial system will be standing
by to find better race-neutral accounts if needed?
Or here's another question. When a black man sitting
on death row wants to appeal his death sentence because he feels
that black jurors were banned from his trial BECAUSE they were black,
should we allow that death row prisoner to introduce jury cards,
questionnaires, and testimony used to select the jury? For the majority
opinion in the case of Texas death row inmate Thomas Miller-El,
the answer is clearly yes, the prisoner is entitled to carry with
him on appeal the jury selection documents that were used at his
trial. But for the dissenting minority, access to jury selection
docs should be limited on appeal.
Justice Thomas argues that once a trial is over, and
the death penalty has been awarded, then death row prisoners can
only re-try issues and documents that they found relevant during
jury selection itself. If after the trial is over a more complete
review of the jury selection process yields new arguments for finding
race discrimination, the minority view would tell the death prisoner,
sorry, too late.
Thomas argues that trial judgments should not be reversible
on the basis of new issues found in fuller review of jury selection
materials. If defendants fail to discern the best case for race
discrimination the first time around, it is simply “unrealistic”
to expect the trial court to know what was never pointed out, and
if the trail court didn't know it at the time, then it can't be
revisited on appeal.
On the other hand, the majority opinion argues that
a court may be held accountable for making the best possible ruling
based on the complete record at hand, whether the judge actually
takes the time to know it or not. Death row prisoners therefore
have the right to go over everything once again with a fine toothed
Working in the legacy of the late Justice Thurgood
Marshall, the majority of the Supreme Court seems to appreciate
the care that has to be taken with logical analysis when you set
out to find patterns of race bias. Sophisticated players in the
race bias game are quite often difficult to catch. In a culture
of race bias the players may not be fully aware of the bias they
are exercising. In a concurring opinion by Justice Breyer, the Supreme
Court reminds us what Marshall predicted: that so long as peremptory
strikes are used in jury selection, there will never be a failsafe
method to disable their usefulness to racial bias.
In the case of Miller-El, it took nearly two decades
to produce a winning case by means of “disparate impact” analysis.
By means of this method of analysis, the majority of the court was
convinced that if prosecutors were taken at their word about the
reasons they gave for striking certain black panelists, then certain
nonblack panelists should have been stricken as well. But by carefully
weighing the prosecution’s "stated reasons" (not the best
possible reasons that were available whether they stated them or
not) and measuring those reasons against the full evidence of the
jury selection process, the majority agreed that a racial bias was
In contrast to Justice Thomas' attempt to show that
a kind of non-racial explanation could be found, the concurring
opinion by Justice Breyer draws on advancing scholarship in the
psychological and social sciences to cast deeper inquiries into
embedded structures of prejudice. In this battle between competing
logics of race bias analysis, which one do we want guiding the Supreme
Court? The one that tends to narrow the field of inquiry into possible
race bias or the one that tries to keep up with ways that we are
learning to see more clearly?
These are just some of the issues that emerge from
a blow-by-blow reading of the Miller-El decision handed down on
June 13. While it is instructive to follow this pioneering skirmish
in the logic of death row justice let's not forget that in 21st
Century USA, the construction and maintenance of death row facilities
is a barbaric foundation for anything that resembles truth or justice.
As we will see below, Thomas makes a crucial claim about death penalty
cases that should serve as a basis for abolishing the death penalty
At least listen to the man on Death Row
As far as the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was concerned,
the case was twice closed. And Justice Thomas would never have allowed
an appeal. But on Monday a Texas death row prisoner won a majority
ruling from the US Supreme Court that jury selection for his 1986
murder trial was flawed by racial discrimination.
In 2001 the federal appeals court first attempted
to close the case of Texas death row prisoner Thomas Miller-El by
refusing to hear his argument that his jury had been selected in
a discriminatory fashion. The trial judge in Miller-El's case had
been instructed by the appeals court to review prosecution "strikes"
against Black jurors to make sure they were not the result of "racial
bias" and the trial judge ruled that in each case the prosecution
gave valid "race neutral" reasons. On that basis, the
appeals court refused to consider an appeal. But in 2002 the US
Supreme Court said it would at least listen to Miller-El's plea
that the case was appealable.
"After examining the record of Miller-El’s extensive
evidence of purposeful discrimination by the Dallas County District
Attorney’s Office before and during his trial," the Supreme
Court in 2003 ruled that an appeal was in order. “The prosecutors
used their peremptory strikes to exclude 91% of the eligible African-American
venire members," wrote the Supreme Court at that time. "Happenstance
is unlikely to produce this disparity.” The Supreme Court sent the
case back to the Fifth District for a hearing.
"During jury selection in Miller-El’s trial for
capital murder, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 10 qualified
black venire members," recalls Justice Souter in Monday's opinion
(with STEVENS, O’CONNOR, KENNEDY, GINSBURG, and BREYER concurring).
"Miller-El objected that the strikes were based on race and
could not be presumed legitimate, given a history of excluding black
members from criminal juries by the Dallas County District Attorney’s
Fifth Circuit judges listened to Miller-El's appeal
as ordered, but they ruled against him in 2004, finding that race-neutral
explanations for striking the black panelists were plausible. Once
again Miller-El went to the Supreme Court. In Monday's ruling the
Supreme Court says to the Fifth Circuit: "again we reverse."
Putting together a pro-death jury
"When the government’s choice of jurors is tainted
with racial bias," argues Justice Souter, "the very integrity
of the courts is jeopardized." In the case of Miller-El, the
Supreme Court again this week ruled that the numbers are "remarkable":
"Out of 20 black members of the 108-person venire panel for
Miller-El’s trial, only 1 served. Although 9 were excused for cause
or by agreement, 10 were peremptorily struck by the prosecution."
"More powerful than these bare statistics,"
says the Court this time around, "are side-by-side comparisons
of some black venire panelists who were struck and white panelists
allowed to serve." Although one black panelist (we'll use his
initials BJF) was struck from the jury pool by the prosecution for
saying that "life imprisonment would give an individual an
opportunity to rehabilitate" there were at least two white
jurors and a Hispanic who expressed similar views about rehabilitation
but who were not struck.
Says Souter, a complete reading of the evidence shows
that the black panelist, "should have been an ideal juror in
the eyes of a prosecutor seeking a death sentence, and the prosecutors’
explanations for the strike cannot reasonably be accepted."
After all, the panelist had said in court that if the state puts
someone to death, then it must be God's will.
"He testified that he had no religious or philosophical
reservations about the death penalty and that the death penalty
deterred crime," reports Justice Souter. "He twice averred,
without apparent hesitation, that he could sit on Miller-El’s jury
and make a decision to impose this penalty."
Justice Souter takes lower courts to task for not
noticing that the prosecution's explanation for removing BJF had
mischaracterized the black panelist's views. "He [the prosecutor]
represented that [the panelist, BJF] said he would not vote for
death if rehabilitation was possible, whereas [BJF] unequivocally
stated that he could impose the death penalty regardless of the
possibility of rehabilitation." writes Souter. "Perhaps
[the prosecutor] misunderstood, but unless he had an ulterior reason
for keeping [BJF] off the jury we think he would have proceeded
differently."Souter discounts the prosecution reason not only
because it mischaracterized the juror's position, but also because
the prosecutor under oath added the following sentence:
"Those are our reasons for exercising our .
. . strike at this time."
For Souter, the tentative qualifier served as evidence
that the prosecutor may have been able to offer non-racial reasons
for the strike, but was also preparing ground to change those reasons,
which in fact he soon did. The panelist had a relative in the criminal
justice system, explained the prosecutor. But why did the prosecutor
not offer that reason first? Under these circumstances the "new
explanation" says Souter "reeks of afterthought"
A jury of one’s peers – or executioners?
In a closely argued dissent, Justice Thomas writes
that Miller-El is the party of afterthought who changes the basis
of his argument with each new venue of appeal. In panelist BJF,
Thomas did not find Souter’s “ideal juror” who saw the hand of God
acting in state executions. Instead, Thomas said the religious onvictions
of the panelist gave prosecutors good reason to fear that he would
be reluctant to issue a death penalty. “Those fears were confirmed
by [the panelist’s] view that all people could be rehabilitated
if introduced to God,” writes Thomas, “a fear that had special force
considering the special-issue questions necessary to impose the
death penalty in Texas.”
Texas jurors delivering a death penalty have to agree
unanimously that “there is a probability that the defendant would
commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing
threat to society.” When panelist BJF testified that ach and every
person is capable of rehabilitation, prosecutors feared that he
would never be able to agree that a defendant had the probability
of being a “continuing threat to society.” As Thomas admits, however,
BJF did testify “that he could impose the death penalty, even on
a defendant who could be rehabilitated.”
For Thomas, it was panelist BJF who had the pretext
for getting on the jury, not the prosecutor who had the pretext
for keeping him off. And yes, while explaining his reason, the prosecutor
did mischaracterize the testimony to some degree, admits Thomas,
ut a careful reading of the transcript shows that prosecutors had
good reasons to strike BJF even if they didn't state those reasons
as carefully as they should have.
For Souter, however, the Supreme Court is not supposed
to help the prosecution find the best non-racial reasons for striking
a juror. The Supreme Court is supposed to evaluate the reasons given
by the prosecution in order to determine if racial discrimination
might be going on. When a prosecutor fails to state his best non-racial
reasons for striking a juror, why should the Justices rehabilitate
his case?Based on reasons stated for striking black panelist BJF,
Justice Souter finds three nonblack panelists who should have been
equally disqualified but who did not attract prosecution strikes.
Justice Thomas, working from his rehabilitated logic of “actual
reasons” (not actually given) found that the nonblack jurors identified
by Souter were in fact more favorable for the prosecution overall.
For example, while the stricken black panelist was related to a
one-time prisoner, the nonstricken white panelist was related to
an agent of the FBI.
In this dispute over panelist BJF, Souter and Thomas
are arguing from two different places. While Thomas finds a more
plausible non-racial account than the one actually put on record,
Souter tests the reasons given on the record and tosses them out
if they don’t fit a coherent non-racial account. The white panelist
from the FBI family also testified that she would be reluctant to
give the death penalty in a case where rehabilitation was possible.
If the prosecution struck the black panelist for similar reasons,
why did they not strike her?
What neither side in the dispute addresses is the
racialized impact of selecting jurors on the basis of family affiliations.
ithhigh rates of criminalization among black men in the USA, the
"non-racial" search for jurors who have no criminals in
the family will surely in the long run disable an important pool
Under present rates of criminalization and incarceration
in black communities why shouldn't families affected by these histories
be allowed to evaluate state's evidence from a jury seat?
Black jurors strike out
In the prosecution's strike against another black
panelist (again we'll use his initials, JW) Souter finds another
example of disparate treatment. Although the panelist repeatedly
says thathe would be able to hand down a death penalty, he does
admit to having "mixed feelings" about the actual punishment
that the death penalty brings. By shortening the life of a killer,
the death penalty might be viewed as relieving the suffering of
"personal punishment." The prosecution claims that the
opinion cost the panelist a chance to serve on a death penalty jury.
Yet four other panelists who were not struck also said the death
penalty might be viewed as the "easy way out" – including
a white juror and the lone black juror who was seated.
As for that lone black juror, Souter sets the stage
of ircumstance. Having used 11 of its 15 peremptory strikes, the
prosecution was looking at three upcoming panelists who had already
expressed in writing that they were opposed to the death penalty.
The prosecution would need to save three strikes for them.
“In fact,” argues Souter, “if the prosecutors were
going to accept any black juror to obscure the otherwise consistent
pattern of opposition to seating one, the time to do so was getting
It is not the business of the courts to clean up the
reasons that prosecutors actually give for their strikes says Souter.
Even if the ppeals court and dissenting justices find more defensible
reasons for striking jurors, it "does nothing to satisfy the
prosecutors’ burden of stating a racially neutral explanation for
their own actions."
Too many Blacks spoil the scheme
In the 2003 ruling that sent Miller-El back to the
appeals court, the Supreme Court found that prosecutors also used
the technique of "jury shuffle" to manipulate racial makeup.
If "too many" black panelists were sitting at the front
of the jury pool, prosecutors would "re-shuffle" the jury
in hopes of moving more lack panelists to the back.
"At the beginning of the third week, the first
four panel members were black. The prosecution shuffled, and these
black panel members ended up at the back. Then the defense shuffled,
and the black panel members again appeared at the front. The prosecution
requested another shuffle, but the trial court refused."
When black panelists can't be shuffled to the back,
they might be prompted to sound a little more hesitant about applying
the death penalty. During questioning, prosecutors used two scripts
leading up to the death penalty questions. One was a bland statement
of the prosecution's intent to seek the death penalty and it was
used 91 percent of the time during the questioning of white panelists.
For half of the black panelists however another script was used:
"When the death penalty is assessed," said
the prosecutor to half the black panelists, "at some point
Mr. Thomas Joe Miller-El – the man sitting right down there – will
be taken to Huntsville and will be put on death row and at some
point taken to the death house and placed on a gurney and injected
with a lethal substance untilhe is dead as a result of the proceedings
that we have in this court on this case."
How would you feel about the death penalty if the
question were put that way? The more a panelist squirms at the thought
of execution, the less qualified she becomes for jury duty in Texas.
While half of the black panelists were given the squirmy script,
94 percent of the white panelists were not. Souter does not buy
the case offered by Texas that the graphic script was given for
non-racial reasons in order to flush out previously identified noncommittal
panelists. The alleged non-racial patterns, says Souter, do not
fit the facts.
Different scripts for different folks
"The same is true for another kind of disparate
questioning, which might fairly be called trickery," writes
Souter. "The prosecutors asked members of the panel how low
a sentence they would consider imposing for murder. Most potential
jurors were first told that Texas law provided for a minimum term
of five years, but some members of the panel were not, and if a
panel member then insisted on a minimum above five years, the prosecutor
would suppress his normal preference for tough jurors and claim
cause to strike."
If the Supreme Court wants to call it trickery when
some black jurors are disqualified for failing to enthuse about
the death penalty strongly enough while other black panelists are
tossed out for feeling too strongly about minimum sentences, then
why would we want to re-phrase? Trickery it is. But it is especially
exasperating trickery for Souter who pastes into his 2005 opinion
the findings of the 2003 Supreme Court that the "mandatory
minimum" trick was played on 88 percent of the black panelists
in the Miller-El trial and six percent of the whites. Yet Souter
takes pains to note that those Supreme Court findings from "Two
Terms ago" had no effect on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal.
After this, Souter pastes more excerpts from the 2003
findings, establishing that Dallas County has a history of court
record when it comes to excluding blacks from juries. When courts
are aware that a local pattern of bias exists, shouldn't they take
extra pains to review claims of bias in those areas? The Supreme
Court had already intervened once. Why is the Fifth District being
so stubborn in its refusal to take direction?
Evidence most vile
Justice Breyer's concurring opinion begins by remembering
Thurgood Marshall's opinion that the only way to eliminate the discriminatory
use of jury strikes would be to eliminate jury strikes themselves.
"To begin with," writes Breyer, "this
case illustrates the practical problems of proof that Justice Marshall
described. As the Court’s opinion makes clear, Miller-El marshaled
extensive evidence of racial bias. But despite the strength of his
claim, Miller-El’s challenge has resulted in 17 years of largely
unsuccessful and protracted litigation – including 8 different judicial
proceedings and 8 different judicial opinions, and involving 23
judges, of whom 6 found the Batson standard violated and 16 the
Even with the evidence and the backing of the Supreme
Court on his side, Miller-El lost his case before most of the judges
he faced by a nearly three-to-one margin. Thurgood Marshall could
see this day coming.
After a dense survey of law, psychology, and social
science, Breyer concludes that, "the use of race- and gender-based
stereotypes in the jury-selection process seems better organized
and more systematized than ever before."
"For example, materials from a legal convention,
while noting that 'nationality' is less important than 'once was
thought,' and emphasizing that 'the answers a prospective juror
gives to questions are much more valuable,' still point out that
'[s]tereotypically' those of 'Italian, French, and Spanish' origin
'are thought to be pro-plaintiff as well as other minorities, such
as Mexican and Jewish[;] [P]ersons of German, Scandinavian, Swedish,
Finnish, Dutch, Nordic, British, Scottish, Oriental, and Russian
origin are thought to be better for the defense'; African-Americans
'have always been considered good for the plaintiff,' and '[m]ore
politically conservative minorities will be more likely to lean
If England can do away with jury strikes, argues Breyer,
why can’t we? Time may be coming when the Supreme Court will be
able to strike down jury strikes altogether.
In dissent, Justices Thomas, Rhenquist, and Scalia
argue that the majority should not have been able to test the validity
of non-racial reasons against juror cards and questionnaires, because
these materials were never part of the evidence considered by the
trial court. Souter replies that since juror materials were part
of the original records of the state court, they are fair game for
appeal, even those parts that were not identified as significant
at the time of trial.
Clarence Thomas: The High Executioner
In his dissent over the use of juror records, Justice
Thomas seems to talk past his own characterization of the majority
opinion. In the words of Thomas, the majority argues that records
used to appeal the jury selection "might not expand on what
the state trial court knew"; which seems to say that the jury-selection
materials actually used at the time of trial really bring nothing
new into the record. But when Thomas argues that the majority claim
is "incorrect" he shifts the question away from "what
the state trial court knew" to what Miller-El actually referenced
in his jury-selection appeals.
It is strange that Thomas would first characterize
the question of appealable materials as one of determining "what
the trial court knew" but then base his dissent to the question
of what Miller-El selected from that record as racially biased at
the time he first objected in state court. In the shift of emphasis
between trial records used and trial records pointed to by the defendant,
Thomas seems to argue that a state court should only be held responsible
for "knowing" those parts of the record that that defendant
"Miller-El’s arguments gave the state court no
reason to go leafing through the voir dire transcript," says
Thomas. "What is more, voir dire at Miller-El’s trial lasted
five weeks, and the transcript occupies 11 volumes numbering 4,662
pages. To think that two years after the fact a trial court should
dredge up on its own initiative passing references to unseen questionnaires
– references buried in a more than 4,600-page transcript no less
– is unrealistic."
Even if Thomas is correct to argue that a trial court
judge cannot be expected to actually "know" everything
in the record, it seems odd to conclude that the "actual knowledge"
of the judge as a person should serve as the limiting criterion
for what can be appealed after the trial is over. When a difference
is established between a judge's actual ignorance of facts in the
record and what the record preserves, the more objective and fair
determination of "what the trial court knows" would seem
to fall on the side of the documentary record.
Something cold is suggested when Thomas complains
that trial courts cannot be expected to completely consider their
own records of jury selection in death penalty cases. In fact, these
very limits of knowledge would make a fine argument for abolishing
the death penalty altogether. As Thomas points out, the certainties
required to make sure that the death penalty is fairly administered
are "unrealistic" to expect at the trial court level.
Thomas complains that the logic of "disparate
treatment" analysis has been introduced very late in the appeals
process. In freezing the logic of analysis at the level of the state
court, Thomas narrows considerably the power of federal appeals
courts to join defendants in looking for patterns of discriminatory
behaviors in state courts. But in racist USA, what better reason
would we need for having a federal court in the first place?
In the subtext of the Miller-El ruling, the validity
of "disparate impact" logic serves as the life preserver
of racial justice, bobbing up once again, presumably to the irritation
of Thomas and his fellow dissenters. But “disparate impacts” are
often difficult to detect in the flow of lived experience. By definition
they can never be found in any individual act. The logic of “disparate
impact” requires careful analysis of patterns of action over time,
space, and circumstance. Because this pattern-seeking analysis requires
some distance from the individual actions in question, what is truly
"unrealistic" is the expectation of Justice Thomas that
well-developed disparate impact analysis must only be developed
at the trial court level. And because the ability to rationalize
disparate impact also grows in sophistication over time, it will
be wise to take the suggestion of Thurgood Marshall and eliminate
the kinds of arbitrary court practices that can be used to craft
But in closing I'd like to come back to the complaint
made by Justice Thomas that the complete records of these death
penalty cases are in a very practical way unknowable. And when we
have unknowable bodies of evidence upon which we are basing executions
in a country and a state with such clear patterns of racial bias
as exist in the USA and Texas, it is simply unconscionable that
the Supreme Court still allows the death penalty at all, never mind
the continuing use of peremptory strikes.
Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights
Review and author of Revolution
of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of
Nonviolence. His chapter on Civil Rights under Clinton and Bush
appears in Dime's
Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey