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New standard for race on death-row juries

A court ruling Tuesday will force judges to look more closely at bias in jury selection.

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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 appeal.

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 selected.

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 trial.

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