There is more than a little irony in the fact that the Thomas Miller-El case settled with a plea agreement on the same day that the Supreme Court revisited race and the death penalty in Snyder v. Louisiana and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard another Texas case with deep racial undertones, that of Rodney Reed.
Today's Dallas Morning News reports, " Death penalty case that highlighted jury bias ends in plea deal."
One of Dallas County's most notorious death penalty cases ended quietly Wednesday after more than two decades when Thomas Joe Miller-El pleaded guilty to capital murder and aggravated robbery in a deal that spares his life but virtually assures that he will die in prison.
State District Judge John Creuzot sentenced Mr. Miller-El, 56, to life in prison on the capital murder charge and 20 years on the aggravated robbery charge, with the sentences to be served consecutively. Mr. Miller-El waived his right to appeal in exchange for prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty.
Mr. Miller-El's well-documented case highlighted problems with jury selection in Dallas County, which unfairly excluded minority jurists. Although he was originally convicted and sentenced to death in 1986 for the shooting death of a hotel clerk, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually reversed the decision citing racial bias in his jury selection.
His attorney, Doug Parks, said Wednesday night that he believes much has changed in the two decades since Mr. Miller-El's initial conviction. He said jury selection has evolved since the days of longtime District Attorney Henry Wade, who was in charge when Mr. Miller-El was convicted, and in the subsequent terms of John Vance, Bill Hill and now, Craig Watkins, who is the first black elected DA in Texas.
"There's been change from Mr. Wade to Mr. Vance to Mr. Hill to our current DA. There has been, over time, a change in attitude," Mr. Parks said. "The attitude currently in the DA's office is not conducive to the tone that existed back when Mr. Miller-El's case was tried."
Mr. Miller-El, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death a month before the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision – Batson vs. Kentucky – which eliminated the practice of racial discrimination in jury selection.
That ruling, which holds to this day, cited statistics from a 1986 series by The Dallas Morning News on discrimination in jury selection. The statistics showed that in 100 randomly selected felony trials, 86 percent of blacks eligible for jury duty were eliminated by prosecutors' peremptory challenges. The News also examined the 15 capital murder cases tried in Dallas County between 1980 and December 1986; prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove nine out of 10 qualified blacks.
The Supreme Court overturned Mr. Miller-El's conviction in 2005. A petition on his behalf submitted to the high court alleged that Dallas County prosecutors used peremptory challenges – legal objections that allow lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors without explanation – to eliminate 10 of 11 qualified blacks from the jury panel.
His attorneys also noted in the petition that juror information cards filled out by prospective jurors in Mr. Miller-El's trial did not provide a blank for their race but that the "race and gender of every juror is coded on each card, in the prosecutors' handwriting."