Supreme Court throws out case of black death row inmate who claims jury bias

Washington – The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a bid by a black man sentenced to death in Texas for the murders of his estranged white wife and two children who argued he was convicted and sentenced to death by a biased jury that had expressed opposition to interracial marriage.

Andre Thomas was charged with murder in 2005 after he killed his estranged wife, their 4-year-old son, who was bisexual, and his wife’s 13-month-old daughter, which his lawyers say happened during a schizophrenic episode .

During the killings, Thomas tried to remove the hearts of his three victims, believing he could “free them from evil”, court heard. He then stabbed himself in the chest and later confessed to the murders to the police. Thomas pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. While in prison awaiting trial, Thomas had his right eye gouged out and four years later had his other eye removed.

Because he was involved in an interracial relationship, Thomas’ attorneys and the state asked prospective jurors about their attitudes toward interracial marriage and childbearing, according to court records. In written questionnaires, three of the prospective jurors expressed opposition to interracial marriage and people of different racial backgrounds having children, but they sat on an all-white jury. A fourth juror, seated as an alternate and eventually excused, also stated opposition to people of different races marrying or having children.

The jury convicted Thomas of the murders and sentenced him to death. He then argued first in state court and then in federal court that his trial counsel were ineffective because they failed to question the jurors about their admitted racial biases or to strike the prejudiced jurors. Thomas also said that impaneling jurors who oppose interracial marriage violates his constitutional rights to a trial by an impartial jury.

A federal district court, however, ruled against Thomas, finding the claim of juror bias “speculative” and his lawyers’ decision not to question three of the four jurors about racial bias was “merely a matter of trial strategy.” The US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.

In an opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss Thomas’ appeal, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote “the hostility expressed by the jurors in their questionnaire strongly suggested that their presence would taint the proceedings with racial bias.”

“By failing to challenge, or even challenge, jurors who were hostile to interracial marriage in a capital case involving this explosive issue, Thomas’ counsel performed well below an objective standard of reasonableness,” Sotomayor, along with Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, wrote. “This deficient performance prejudiced Thomas by depriving him of a fair trial.”

Sotomayor noted that the case before the Supreme Court involved a “heinous crime apparently committed by someone who suffered severe psychological trauma,” but said that “no juror deciding whether to recommend the death penalty should be tainted by potential racial bias that could influence his deliberations or decisions’.

“The errors in this case render Thomas’ death sentence not only unreliable, but unconstitutional,” he concluded.

Maurie Levin, an attorney for Thomas, criticized the Supreme Court’s denial of the case, saying it “abandons the court’s role and responsibility to ‘address racial hostility in the judicial system.’

“No one who listens to the story of Mr. Thomas’s life believes that he is mentally competent,” Levin said in a statement. “Leading a blind, delirious man through the Texas gauntlet would be an indelible image that would cast a permanent shadow on the reputation of Texas. Texas can keep the public safe by keeping Mr. Thomas in prison for life.”

Texas officials urged the Supreme Court not to hear Thomas’ case, arguing that his attorney questioned one of the jurors “extensively” about racial bias and the court “ensured that the other two could return an impartial verdict in the face of data”.

Attorney General Ken Paxton also argued that Thomas’ attorney was “experienced in conducting trials in Grayson County, Texas, and presented affidavits that they made strategic decisions about the extent to which they challenged jurors on their views on interracial marriage during during the voir dire”.

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