Judges must be more vigilant in preventing the use of race as a
factor in jury selection under a tougher standard established by the
US Supreme Court.
The new standard emerges in the case of a Texas death-row inmate
who said he was denied a fair trial when prosecutors excluded 10 of
11 qualified African-Americans from serving on his jury. In an 8-to-
1 decision with implications for capital cases nationwide, the court
ruled Tuesday that a federal judge and a federal appeals court panel
wrongly denied the defendant an opportunity to raise the issue on
The decision marks an important victory for civil rights
advocates who have long complained that some prosecutors
deliberately try to exclude blacks from juries, particularly when
the defendant in the trial is black. In effect, the decision puts
every state and federal judge in the US on notice that he or she
must pay closer attention to charges that jury selection has been
tainted by racial discrimination.
'Take a harder look'
"It is a clear signal from the court: Take a harder look at these
issues," says George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense and
Educational Fund in New York.
Elisabeth Semel of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of
California at Berkeley law school says the high court's ruling is
significant on a number of levels. "This opinion both clarifies what
the rule is for giving appellate review and directs the Fifth US
Circuit Court of Appeals to apply a much more generous opportunity
for review," Ms. Semel says.
She says the court makes clear that judges in the case involving
Thomas Joe Miller-El, the death-row defendant, did not take a
rigorous enough look at the issue. "This really makes it clear it
has to be a thorough analysis, a complete analysis. It can't be a
kind of pick-and-choose," she says.
The high court's action doesn't necessarily mean that Mr. Miller-
El will win his case and force a new trial. But at a minimum, he
must be afforded an opportunity to challenge the way his jury was
Texas prosecutors deny that race played a role in the
disqualification of any jurors in Miller-El's 1986 trial. He was
convicted of murdering a motel clerk during a robbery.
Attorneys for Miller-El argue that prosecutors in Dallas County
had a long history of deliberately excluding African-Americans from
juries in criminal trials because they believed they were unlikely
to convict black defendants, regardless of the evidence presented at