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High court revisits racial bias in jury selection

In a case heard Wednesday, justices consider whether a Texas prosecutor erred in screening out black jurors.

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The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees in all criminal cases trial by an impartial jury. That means a group of individuals comprised of a cross section of the community willing and able to judge the evidence without affording special consideration to either the prosecutor or the defendant.

But what happens when race enters the equation?

In some jurisdictions in the US, prosecutors long followed a secret policy of excluding as many African-Americans as possible from a jury whenever the defendant was black. They did so because they believed that African-American jurors would be more likely than other jurors to acquit black defendants regardless of the evidence presented at trial.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that such jury-selection tactics are unconstitutional in a case called Batson v. Kentucky. But the issue of jurors and race remains an Achilles heel of the American system of justice.

Wednesday, the US Supreme Court is examining the selection of a jury in Dallas County, Texas, that took place two months before the court's 1986 Batson decision. At issue is whether Texas death-row inmate Thomas Joe Miller-El was denied a fair trial when prosecutors excluded 10 of 11 qualified African-Americans from his jury.

A closely watched case

Aside from the obvious importance to Mr. Miller-El, the case is significant because it may offer judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel nationwide firm guidance on how to handle claims of racial discrimination in jury selection.

But the case could also represent something of a crossroads for the court.

On one side, a majority of justices have recently shown a heightened concern about the fairness of procedures used in death-penalty cases. On the other hand, a majority of justices have also upheld Congressional efforts to short-circuit the use of federal habeas petitions – like Miller-El's – to challenge death sentences.

Legal analysts will be watching closely during Wednesday's oral argument for clues about how the justices view the case. They'll be paying particular attention to the centrist, swing judge, Anthony Kennedy.


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