In an 8 to 1 ruling, the high court found that a federal judge should have given full consideration to the inmate's evidence of a purposeful and historical pattern of jury discrimination in the Texas district where he was tried for murder.
Thomas Miller-El stood trial in 1986 for the shooting of two hotel clerks during a robbery at a Holiday Inn in Irving, Texas, in which one of the clerks died and another was paralyzed. Miller-El was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Texas prosecutors used their ability to challenge and strike 10 of the 11 potential African American jurors during the trial's jury selection phase. Only one black juror was selected for Miller-El's trial.
The high court disagreed sharply with a Texas trial judge and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who had brushed aside Miller-El's racial bias claims without a full hearing.
Miller-El's lawyers claimed that at the time of his trial, the Dallas County District Attorney 's office engaged in a "pattern and practice of systemic racial discrimination" in jury selection. They cited memos and training manuals dating back to 1963 that encouraged prosecutors to engage in "jury shuffling" to ensure that white jurors were picked and claimed that prosecutors believed that minorities would automatically empathize with the defendant.
Miller-El's lawyers also cited a 1986 study conducted by The Dallas Morning News that found that prosecutors used preemptory challenges to remove 90 percent of African Americans eligible to serve on juries in 15 death penalty cases from 1980 to 1986.
Prosecutors denied that race was a factor in Miller-El's jury selection, claiming instead that they removed juror candidates who expressed concerns about the death penalty, regardless of their race.
The high court's decision does not overturn Miller-El's conviction, but sends the case back to the lower courts where he could get a new hearing based on his claims. Miller-El was scheduled to die in 2002 for his murder conviction but his execution was delayed when the Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court's majority, which included Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and Steven Breyer. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a separate concurring opinion.
"Irrespective of whether the evidence could prove sufficient to support a charge of systematic exclusion of African-Americans, it reveals that the culture of the district attorney's office in the past was suffused with bias against African-Americans in jury selection," Justice Kennedy wrote.
"Even if we presume at this stage that the prosecutors in Miller-El's case were not part of this culture of discrimination, the evidence suggests they likely were not ignorant of it," Kennedy explained.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only African-American member, was the lone dissenter. In his dissent, Thomas said that Miller-El failed to show "clear and convincing evidence" that any specific juror was eliminated due to racial discrimination and should not have been able to get the appeal he pursued.
"Quite simply, petitioner's arguments rest on circumstantial evidence and speculation that does not hold up to a through review of the record," Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent. "[P]etitioner has perhaps not even demonstrated that reasonable jurists could debate whether he has provided the requisite evidence of purposeful discrimination-- but that is the majority's inquiry, not mine."