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Law School Case Brief

Miller-El v. Dretke - 545 U.S. 231, 125 S. Ct. 2317 (2005)


A defendant can make out a prima facie case of discriminatory jury selection by the totality of the relevant facts about a prosecutor's conduct during the defendant's own trial. Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the State to come forward with a neutral explanation for challenging jurors within an arguably targeted class. Although there may be any number of bases on which a prosecutor reasonably might believe that it is desirable to strike a juror who is not excusable for cause the prosecutor must give a clear and reasonably specific explanation of his legitimate reasons for exercising the challenge. The trial court then will have the duty to determine if the defendant has established purposeful discrimination.


Petitioner Thomas Joe Miller-El was charged with capital murder and scheduled for a jury trial in a Texas state court. When the jury was being selected, the prosecution assertedly used peremptory challenges to exclude 91 percent of the eligible African-American venire members. Although 10 of 11 African-American venire panelists were peremptorily struck by the prosecution, the prosecution contended that the strikes were based on the jurors' ambivalence or opposition to the death penalty. The state trial court denied Miller-El's motion to strike the jury on grounds that the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges violated the equal protection clause. Miller-El was convicted of capital murder and was sentenced to death. While Miller-El's state-court appeal was pending, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79, 90 L. Ed. 2d 69, 106 S. Ct. 1712, which established a three-step process for evaluating a state criminal defendant's claim that a prosecutor has used a peremptory challenge in violation of the equal protection clause. Under this process: (1) the defendant must make a prima facie showing that the peremptory challenge was exercised on the basis of race; (2) if that showing was made, then the prosecutor must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question; and (3) in light of the parties' submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant showed purposeful discrimination. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas remanded Miller-El's case for new findings in light of Batson. After a hearing, the state trial court again ruled against Miller-El, as the trial court determined that his evidence failed to satisfy Batson's first step and the state would have prevailed on Batson's second and third steps. The state appellate court denied Miller-El's subsequent appeal, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari in 1993. Subsequently, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, amended the habeas corpus statute mandating that a state prisoner seeking habeas corpus relief had no automatic right to appeal a federal district court's denial of such relief. Instead, the prisoner first had to seek and obtain a certificate of appealability (COA). Miller-El sought federal habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and included a jury-selection claim based on Batson. Miller-El petition for habeas corpus relief was denied. Miller-El then renewed his request with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which also denied a COA. Miller-El was granted a writ of certiorari.


Was Miller-El entitled to federal habeas corpus relief?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that Miller-El was entitled to prevail on his federal habeas corpus claim that the prosecutors in his trial had made race-based peremptory strikes of potential jurors, in violation of the equal protection clause. The Court held that the cumulative evidence of prosecution tactics clearly raised the inference that the strikes were discriminatory. Happenstance was unlikely to produce the disparity shown by the substantial percentage of African-American jurors who were struck, especially where white jurors with comparable views were not challenged. Further, the prosecution took advantage of the state practice of allowing the shuffling of the names of prospective jurors to delay, in hopes of eliminating, African-American jurors from consideration. Also, prior to asking about death penalty views, most white panel members were given a bland description of the death penalty, while African-American members were given a graphic description to induce an aversion to the death penalty. Moreover, as a tactic to create cause to strike, African-Americans were not told the minimum penalty prior to providing their opinions of a proper minimum, and the prosecution office historically had a policy of excluding African-Americans from juries. Thus, the judgment upholding the denial of Miller-El's habeas corpus petition was reversed, and the case was remanded for entry of judgment in favor of Miller-El and orders of appropriate relief. 

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