Supreme Court turns away case of Black death row inmate who alleges jury bias
Washington — The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined a bid from a Black man on death row in Texas for the murder of his estranged White wife and two children who argued he was convicted and sentenced to death by biased jurors who had expressed opposition to interracial marriage.
Andre Thomas was charged with capital murder in 2005 after killing his estranged wife, their 4-year-old son, who was biracial, and his wife's 13-month-old daughter, which his attorneys said occurred during a schizophrenic episode.
During the murders, Thomas attempted to remove the hearts of his three victims, thinking he could "set them free from evil," according to court filings. He then stabbed himself in the chest, and later confessed to the killings to police. Thomas pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. While in prison waiting for his trial, Thomas gouged out his right eye, and, four years later, removed his other eye.
Because he was involved in an interracial relationship, Thomas's trial lawyers and the state asked prospective jurors for their attitude toward interracial marriage and procreation, according to court filings. On written questionnaires, three of the prospective jurors expressed opposition to interracial marriage and people of different racial backgrounds having children, but were seated on an all-white jury. A fourth juror, seated as an alternate and ultimately excused, also declared opposition to people of different races marrying or having children.
The jury convicted Thomas for the killings and sentenced him to death. He then argued first in state court and then in federal court his trial counsel was ineffective because they failed to question jurors about their admitted racial biases or strike the biased jurors. Thomas also said seating the jurors opposed to interracial marriage violated his constitutional rights to trial by an impartial jury.
A federal district court, however, ruled against Thomas, finding the juror-bias claim was "speculative" and his lawyers' decision not to question three of the four jurors about racial bias was "simply a matter of trial strategy." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling.
In an opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court's decision not to take up Thomas's appeal, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the "hostility the jurors expressed in their questionnaire strongly suggested that their presence would infect the proceedings with racial bias."
"By failing to challenge, or even question, jurors who were hostile to interracial marriage in a capital case involving that explosive topic, Thomas' counsel performed well below an objective standard of reasonableness," Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, wrote. "This deficient performance prejudiced Thomas by depriving him of a fair trial."
Sotomayor noted that the case before the Supreme Court involved a "heinous crime apparently committed by someone who suffered severe psychological trauma," but said "no jury deciding whether to recommend a death sentence should be tainted by potential racial biases that could infect its deliberations or decisions."
"The errors in this case render Thomas' death sentence not only unreliable, but unconstitutional," she concluded.
Maurie Levin, Thomas's attorney, criticized the Supreme Court's denial of the case, saying it "abdicates the court's role and responsibility to 'confront racial animus in the justice system.'"
"No one who hears the story of Mr. Thomas' life believes he is mentally competent," Levin said in a statement. "Guiding a blind, delusional man onto Texas' gurney would be an indelible image that would cast a permanent shadow over Texas' reputation. Texas can keep the public safe by keeping Mr. Thomas in prison for life."
Texas officials urged the Supreme Court not to take up Thomas' case, arguing his trial counsel questioned one of the jurors at issue "extensively" about racial bias, and the trial court "ensured that the other two could render an impartial verdict in view of the evidence."
Attorney General Ken Paxton also argued Thomas's trial lawyer were "experienced in conducting trials in Grayson County, Texas, and presented affidavits affirming they made strategic decisions concerning the extent they questioned the jurors at issue about their views on interracial marriage during voir dire."
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