On Tuesday, February 25, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Thomas Miller-El, a black Texas death row inmate, who claimed that the Dallas County District Attorney ‘s Office demonstrated racial bias in the jury selection for his trial. In the case, Thomas Joe Miller-El v. Janie Cockrell, the students and faculty of Boalt’s Death Penalty Clinic filed two amicus curiae briefs in support of Miller-El. The first brief was filed on behalf of a former judge and a prosecutor, urging the Court to review Miller-El’s 1986 conviction for the murder of a white hotel clerk and subsequent death sentence. The clinic’s brief outlines previously documented evidence demonstrating that the District Attorney deliberately and systematically excluded African Americans from juries for years preceding and during Mr. Miller-El’s trial.
After the Court granted review, the clinic filed a second amicus curiae brief on the merits of the case. In its brief on behalf of former judges and prosecutors, the clinic asked the Court to enforce the rule of Batson v. Kentucky, which prohibits racial discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges in jury selection.
On Tuesday, the high court ruled 8-1 that 5th Circuit Court of Appeals should have reviewed Miller-El’s claim. The majority criticized the 5th Circuit’s refusal to consider the case, noting “we have no difficulty concluding” that review should have been granted. In an opinion that has repercussions for Batson claims throughout the nation, the majority detailed Miler-El’s extensive presentation, and questioned the “strained and dismissive” manner in which lower courts had interpreted some of that evidence.
“The assistance and support of the Death Penalty Clinic was critical to the favorable outcome in this case, says Jim Marcus, attorney for Miller-El. “Without the efforts of the clinic, the Court might not have ever focused its attention on Mr. Miller-El’s case in the first place.”
Launched in August 2001, Boalt’s Death Penalty Clinic offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience assisting death row inmates in need of legal counsel. These complex cases teach students about the justice system and prepare them to enter the profession with a commitment to fundamental rights. Students work under the direct supervision of the clinic’s two attorneys, Professors Elisabeth Semel and Charles Weisselberg.