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Law School Case Brief

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


Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a habeas corpus petitioner may obtain relief only by showing the State's conclusion to be an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding. 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(d)(2). Thus a federal court presumes the State court's factual findings to be sound unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. § 2254(e)(1). The standard is demanding but not insatiable; deference does not by definition preclude relief. 


When Dallas County prosecutors in Texas state court used peremptory strikes against 10 of the 11 qualified African-American venire members during jury selection for petitioner Thomas Joe Miller-El's capital murder trial, he objected, claiming that the strikes were based on race and could not be presumed legitimate since the district attorney's office had a history of excluding African-Americans from criminal juries. The trial court denied Miller-El's motion to strike the jury; he was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death. While his appeal in state court was pending, the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 90 L. Ed. 2d 69, 106 S. Ct. 1712 that discrimination by a prosecutor in selecting a defendant's jury violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas remanded Miller-El's case for new findings in light of Batson. On remand, the trial court again ruled against Miller-El after it reviewed the voir dire record, heard the prosecutor's justifications for the strikes that were not explained during voir dire, and found no showing that prospective African-American jurors were struck because of their race. The court of criminal appeals affirmed.

Subsequently, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 amended the habeas corpus statute so that 28 U.S.C.S. § 2253 mandated that a state prisoner seeking habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254 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). Meanwhile, after Miller-El was unsuccessful in state habeas corpus proceedings, he sought federal habeas corpus relief, which included a jury-selection claim based on Batson. The district court denied relief. The district court and a federal appellate court denied Miller-El's subsequent applications for a COA. Miller-El was granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the federal court of appeals err in denying Miller-El's petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the appellate court's decision and remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of Miller-El and orders of appropriate relief. 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.

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