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Thomas Miller-El wins new trial

Published Jun 15, 2005 8:25 PM

In a six-to-three decision on June 13, the U.S. Supreme Court sharply rebuked Texas prosecutors as well as Texas appeals courts, ruling that their excuses for racism in jury selection are unconstitutional.

Thomas Miller-El

The conviction of Thomas Miller-El, an African American man sentenced to death in Dallas in 1986, was thrown out. Now—after spending over 19 years on death row—he will be granted a new trial.

Miller-El was within six days of execution in February 2002, when the Supreme Court intervened and gave him a stay of execution. The high court later ordered the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to re-examine Miller-El’s claims that Black people were unfairly struck from his jury.

The 5th Circuit upheld the original Texas court ruling. That led the Supreme Court to review Miller-El’s case for a second time, ending in this reversal.

Dorothy Miller-El visited her husband on the day the ruling came down. He told her: “Wow! I’ve been here for so long, been fighting so hard. Wow! I am so happy that I’m lost for words.”

Dorothy Miller-El had left home before the ruling was announced. She got the good news from Thomas Miller-El. He heard it on the radio, and in a phone call from his attorney, Jim Marcus, executive director of the Texas Defenders Service in Houston.

“We are both so happy,” Dorothy Miller-El told Workers World. “This ruling sends a strong message that the Texas courts cannot be discriminatory. The Supreme Court will not tolerate racist practices.

“This is not only good for Thomas, but for all those going through the Texas criminal-justice system. Blacks cannot be struck from juries just because they are Black.”

She added: “We thank all Thomas’s supporters in Texas and around the world for their continued support. It is overwhelming today getting this good news. I’ve heard from people around the state and so many in Europe.”

For years, Thomas Miller-El had contended that the Dallas prosecutor struck 10 of the 11 Black people eligible to be on his jury because of their race.

“There was one Black man on my jury,” Miller-El told Workers World in an interview conducted before the Supreme Court’s ruling. “He thought the death penalty was too quick. He said that people who commit crimes should be tied down on a bed of red ants and have honey poured on them.

“This was a very inhumane thing to say and it was inhumane for the district attorney to accept a juror who would make such a statement,” Dorothy Miller-El said.

Miller-El’s brief to the Supreme Court cited a treatise by Dallas County prosecutors in which they had warned against letting “Jews, Negroes, Dagos and Mexicans” serve on juries, no matter how much money they earned.

Another memorandum, dated 1969 and used to train prosecutors, advised, “You are not looking for any member of a minority group—they almost always empathize with the accused.”

Shortly after Miller-El’s 1986 conviction, the Supreme Court ruled in Batson vs. Kentucky that jurors could not be struck from serving on a jury because of their race. The Batson ruling applied retro actively to Miller-El because his case was still being appealed.

by racist cops

Miller-El was arrested in November 1985 while visiting his hometown of Hou ston. He was ambushed by a Houston Police SWAT team, who began shooting him.

Miller-El told WW that as he was lying on the ground bleeding, he could hear one of the cops say:” “Is the n——- dead? If he ain’t, kill him!”

The bullets shattered his intestines and other internal organs. When he later awoke in a Houston hospital, he found he had been charged with capital murder for the robbery and death of a Dallas motel clerk.

He was in a Houston hospital for 52 days. He had two operations. He was then transferred to the Dallas County Jail, and was tried 19 days later.

Miller-El continued to suffer severe health complications during and after his trial. He was hospitalized several times during the trial, prompting requests for medical evaluations from the trial court.

The judge took away Miller-El’s pain medication during the trial and accused him of smuggling drugs into the courtroom. He was left without pain relief, denied necessary sleep, and could not participate in his own defense.

But the trial proceeded without pause. Miller-El suffered complications with his colostomy and infections from the gunshot wound, which was oozing green liquid. He also had pneumonia and was so weak he could barely whisper to his attorneys.

“My court-appointed attorney was running for D.A. in the county election at the time, and he really did not want to talk to me,” Miller told Workers World in 1990. “I was so weak that I had to get up real close to him to try to speak with him and he did not like that.”

The evening after his conviction, Miller-El was sent to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital, where he was treated for a small-bowel obstruction. He appeare d in the courtroom the next morning for sentencing.

Miller-El’s case has drawn national and international attention. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters all filed a “friend of the court” briefs. So did several former judges, prosecutors and even a former director of the FBI.

His supporters include political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, noted Spanish filmmaker Javier Corcuero, Spanish pop rock group SKA-P, and Biblioteca Thomas Miller-El in Peru. Supporters in Europe maintain his Web page.

Miller-El’s case could play a role in a future Supreme Court nomination battle. Among the federal appeals judges who denied the existence of racism in Dallas County and voted to execute Miller-El was Edith Jones of the 5th Circuit. She is believed to be on a short list of potential Supreme Court nominees if President George W. Bush gets to make a nomination.

Letters of solidarity can be sent to: Thomas Miller-El #000834, Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77035. For more background on his case, visit www.thomasmillerel.org.