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Miller-El v. Cockrell

February 25, 2003


Court Below: 261 F. 3d 445


Argued October 16, 2002

When Dallas County prosecutors used peremptory strikes to exclude 10 of the 11 African-Americans eligible to serve on the jury at petitioner's capital murder trial, he moved to strike the jury on the ground that the exclusions violated equal protection. Petitioner presented extensive evidence supporting his motion at a pretrial hearing, but the trial judge denied relief, finding no evidence indicating a systematic exclusion of blacks, as was required by the then-controlling precedent, Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 202. Subsequently, the jury found petitioner guilty, and he was sentenced to death. While his appeal was pending, this Court established, in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79, a three-part process for evaluating equal protection claims such as petitioner's. Upon remand from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for new findings in light of Batson, the original trial court held a hearing at which it admitted all the Swain hearing evidence and took further evidence, but concluded that petitioner failed to satisfy step one of Batson because the evidence did not even raise an inference of racial motivation in the State's use of peremptory challenges. The court also determined that the State would have prevailed on steps two and three because the prosecutors had proffered credible, race-neutral explanations for the African-Americans excluded -- i.e., their reluctance to assess, or reservations concerning, imposition of the death penalty -- such that petitioner could not prove purposeful discrimination. After petitioner's direct appeal and state habeas petitions were denied, he filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U. S. C. §2254, raising a Batson claim and other issues. The Federal District Court denied relief in deference to the state courts' acceptance of the prosecutors' race-neutral justifications for striking the potential jurors, and subsequently denied petitioner's §2253 application for a certificate of appealability (COA). The Fifth Circuit noted that a COA will issue "only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right," §2253(c)(2); reasoned that a petitioner must make such a "substantial showing" under the standard set forth in Slack v. McDaniel, The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kennedy

537 U. S. ____ (2003)

On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Fifth Circuit

In this case we once again examine when a state prisoner can appeal the denial or dismissal of his petition for writ of habeas corpus. In 1986 two Dallas County assistant district attorneys used peremptory strikes to exclude 10 of the 11 African-Americans eligible to serve on the jury which tried petitioner Thomas Joe Miller-El. During the ensuing 17 years, petitioner has been unsuccessful in establishing, in either state or federal court, that his conviction and death sentence must be vacated because the jury selection procedures violated the Equal Protection Clause and our holding in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79 (1986). The claim now arises in a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus. The procedures and standards applicable in the case are controlled by the habeas corpus statute codified at Title 28, chapter 153 of the United States Code, most recently amended in a substantial manner by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). In the interest of finality AEDPA constrains a federal court's power to disturb state-court convictions.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, after reviewing the evidence before the state trial court, determined that petitioner failed to establish a constitutional violation warranting habeas relief. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, concluding there was insufficient merit to the case, denied a certificate of appealability (COA) from the District Court's determination. The COA denial is the subject of our decision.

At issue here are the standards AEDPA imposes before a court of appeals may issue a COA to review a denial of habeas relief in the district court. Congress mandates that a prisoner seeking post-conviction relief under 28 U. S. C. §2254 has no automatic right to appeal a district court's denial or dismissal of the petition. Instead, petitioner must first seek and obtain a COA. In resolving this case we decide again that when a habeas applicant seeks permission to initiate appellate review of the dismissal of his petition, the court of appeals should limit its examination to a threshold inquiry into the underlying merit of his claims. Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U. S. 473, 481 (2000). Consistent with our prior precedent and the text of the habeas corpus statute, we reiterate that a prisoner seeking a COA need only demonstrate "a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right." 28 U. S. C. §2253(c)(2). A petitioner satisfies this standard by demonstrating that jurists of reason could disagree with the district court's resolution of his constitutional claims or that jurists could conclude the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further. Slack, supra, at 484. Applying these principles to petitioner's application, we conclude a COA should have issued.



Petitioner, his wife Dorothy Miller-El, and one Kenneth Flowers robbed a Holiday Inn in Dallas, Texas. They emptied the cash drawers and ordered two employees, Doug Walker and Donald Hall, to lie on the floor. Walker and Hall were gagged with strips of fabric, and their hands and feet were bound. Petitioner asked Flowers if he was going to kill Walker and Hall. When Flowers hesitated or refused, petitioner shot Walker twice in the back and shot Hall in the side. Walker died from his wounds.

The State indicted petitioner for capital murder. He pleaded not guilty, and jury selection took place during five weeks in February and March 1986. When voir dire had been concluded, petitioner moved to strike the jury on the grounds that the prosecution had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by excluding African-Americans through the use of peremptory challenges. Petitioner's trial occurred before our decision in Batson, supra, and Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 202 (1965), was then the controlling precedent. As Swain required, petitioner sought to show that the prosecution's conduct was part of a larger pattern of discrimination aimed at excluding African-Americans from jury service. In a pretrial hearing held on March 12, 1986, petitioner presented extensive evidence in support of his motion. The trial judge, however, found "no evidence ... that indicated any systematic exclusion of blacks as a matter of policy by the District Attorney's office; while it may have been done by individual prosecutors in individual cases." App. 813. The state court then denied petitioner's motion to strike the jury. Ibid. Twelve days later, the jury found petitioner guilty; and the trial court sentenced him to death.

Petitioner appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. While the appeal was pending, on April 30, 1986, the Court decided Batson v. Kentucky and established its three-part process for evaluating claims that a prosecutor used peremptory challenges in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race. 476 U. S., at 96-97. Second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question. Id., at 97-98. Third, in light of the parties' submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination. Id., at 98.

After acknowledging petitioner had established an inference of purposeful discrimination, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for new findings in light of Batson. Miller-El v. State, 748 S. W. 2d 459 (1988). A post-trial hearing was held on May 10, 1988 (a little over two years after petitioner's jury had been empaneled). There, the original trial court admitted all the evidence presented at the Swain hearing and further evidence and testimony from the attorneys in the original trial. App. 843-844.

On January 13, 1989, the trial court concluded that petitioner's evidence failed to satisfy step one of Batson because it "did not even raise an inference of racial motivation in the use of the state's peremptory challenges" to support a prima facie case. Id., at 876. Notwithstanding this conclusion, the state court determined that the State would have prevailed on steps two and three because the prosecutors had offered credible, race-neutral explanations for each African-American excluded. The court further found "no disparate prosecutorial examination of any of the venireman in question" and "that the primary reasons for the exercise of the challenges against each of the veniremen in question [was] their reluctance to assess or reservations concerning the imposition of the death penalty." Id., at 878. There was no discussion of petitioner's other evidence.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied petitioner's appeal, and we denied certiorari. Miller-El v. Texas, 510 U. S. 831 (1993). Petitioner's state habeas proceedings fared no better, and he was denied relief by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2254. Although petitioner raised four issues, we concern ourselves here with only petitioner's jury selection claim premised on Batson. The Federal Magistrate Judge who considered the merits was troubled by some of the evidence adduced in the state-court proceedings. He, nevertheless, recommended, in deference to the state courts' acceptance of the prosecutors' race-neutral justifications for striking the potential jurors, that petitioner be denied relief. The United States District Court adopted the recommendation. Pursuant to §2253, petitioner sought a COA from the District Court, and the application was denied. Petitioner renewed his request to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and it also denied the COA.

The Court of Appeals noted that, under controlling habeas principles, a COA will issue " `only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.' " Miller-El v. Johnson, 261 F. 3d 445, 449 (2001) (quoting 28 U. S. C. §2253(c)(2)). Citing our decision in Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U. S. 473 (2000), the court reasoned that "[a] petitioner makes a `substantial showing' when he demonstrates that his petition involves issues which are debatable among jurists of reason, that another court could resolve the issues differently, or that the issues are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further." 261 F. 3d, at 449. The Court of Appeals also interjected the requirements of 28 U. S. C. §2254 into the COA determination: "As an appellate court reviewing a federal habeas petition, we are required by §2254(d)(2) to presume the state court findings correct unless we determine that the findings result in a decision which is unreasonable in light of the evidence presented. And the unreasonableness, if any, must be established by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U. S. C. § 2254(e)(1)." 261 F. 3d, at 451.

Applying this framework to petitioner's COA application, the Court of Appeals concluded "that the state court's findings are not unreasonable and that Miller-El has failed to present clear and convincing evidence to the contrary." Id., at 452. As a consequence, the court "determined that the state court's adjudication neither resulted in a decision that was unreasonable in light of the evidence presented nor resulted in a decision contrary to clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court," ibid.; and it denied petitioner's request for a COA. We granted certiorari. 534 U. S. 1122 (2002).


While a COA ruling is not the occasion for a ruling on the merit of petitioner's claim, our determination to reverse the Court of Appeals counsels us to explain in some detail the extensive evidence concerning the jury selection procedures. Petitioner's evidence falls into two broad categories. First, he presented to the state trial court, at a pretrial Swain hearing, evidence relating to a pattern and practice of race discrimination in the voir dire. Second, two years later, he presented, to the same state court, evidence that directly related to the conduct of the prosecutors in his case. We discuss the latter first.

A comparative analysis of the venire members demonstrates that African-Americans were excluded from petitioner's jury in a ratio significantly higher than Caucasians were. Of the 108 possible jurors reviewed by the prosecution and defense, 20 were African-American. Nine of them were excused for cause or by agreement of the parties. Of the 11 African-American jurors remaining, however, all but 1 were excluded by peremptory strikes exercised by the prosecutors. On this basis 91% of the eligible black jurors were removed by peremptory strikes. In contrast the prosecutors used their peremptory strikes against just 13% (4 out of 31) of the eligible nonblack prospective jurors qualified to serve on petitioner's jury.

These numbers, while relevant, are not petitioner's whole case. During voir dire, the prosecution questioned venire members as to their views concerning the death penalty and their willingness to serve on a capital case. Responses that disclosed reluctance or hesitation to impose capital punishment were cited as a justification for striking a potential juror for cause or by peremptory challenge. Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U. S. 412 (1985). The evidence suggests, however, that the manner in which members of the venire were questioned varied by race. To the extent a divergence in responses can be attributed to the racially disparate mode of examination, it is relevant to our inquiry.

Most African-Americans (53%, or 8 out of 15) were first given a detailed description of the mechanics of an execution in Texas:

"[I]f those three [sentencing] questions are answered yes, at some point[,] Thomas Joe Miller-El will be taken to Huntsville, Texas. He will be placed on death row and at some time will be taken to the death house where he will be strapped on a gurney, an IV put into his arm and he will be injected with a substance that will cause his death ... as the result of the verdict in this case if those three questions are answered yes." App. 215.

Only then were these African-American venire members asked whether they could render a decision leading to a sentence of death. Very few prospective white jurors (6%, or 3 out of 49) were given this preface prior to being asked for their views on capital punishment. Rather, all but three were questioned in vague terms: "Would you share with us ... your personal feelings, if you could, in your own words how you do feel about the death penalty and capital punishment and secondly, do you feel you could serve on this type of a jury and actually render a decision that would result in the death of the Defendant in this case based on the evidence? " Id., at 506.

There was an even more pronounced difference, on the apparent basis of race, in the manner the prosecutors questioned members of the venire about their willingness to impose the minimum sentence for murder. Under Texas law at the time of petitioner's trial, an unwillingness to do so warranted removal for cause. Huffman v. State, 450 S. W. 2d 858, 861 (Tex. Crim. App. 1970), vacated in part, 408 U. S. 936 (1972). This strategy normally is used by the defense to weed out pro-state members of the venire, but, ironically, the prosecution employed it here. The prosecutors first identified the statutory minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment to 34 out of 36 (94%) white venire members, and only then asked: "If you hear a case, to your way of thinking [that] calls for and warrants and justifies five years, you'll give it?" App. 509. In contrast, only 1 out of 8 (12.5%) African-American prospective jurors were informed of the statutory minimum before being asked what minimum sentence they would impose. The typical questioning of the other seven black jurors was as follows:

"[Prosecutor]: Now, the maximum sentence for [murder] ... is life under the law. Can you give me an idea of just your personal feelings what you feel a minimum sentence should be for the offense of murder the way I've set it out for you?

"[Juror]: Well, to me that's almost like it's premeditated. But you said they don't have a premeditated statute here in Texas.

"[Prosecutor]: Again, we're not talking about self-defense or accident or insanity or killing in the heat of passion or anything like that. We're talking about the knowing --

"[Juror]: I know you said the minimum. The minimum amount that I would say would be at least twenty years." Id., at 226-227.

Furthermore, petitioner points to the prosecution's use of a Texas criminal procedure practice known as jury shuffling. This practice permits parties to rearrange the order in which members of the venire are examined so as to increase the likelihood that visually preferable venire members will be moved forward and empaneled. With no information about the prospective jurors other than their appearance, the party requesting the procedure literally shuffles the juror cards, and the venire members are then reseated in the new order. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Art. 35.11 (Vernon Supp. 2003). Shuffling affects jury composition because any prospective jurors not questioned during voir dire are dismissed at the end of the week, and a new panel of jurors appears the following week. So jurors who are shuffled to the back of the panel are less likely to be questioned or to serve.

On at least two occasions the prosecution requested shuffles when there were a predominate number of African-Americans in the front of the panel. On yet another occasion the prosecutors complained about the purported inadequacy of the card shuffle by a defense lawyer but lodged a formal objection only after the postshuffle panel composition revealed that African-American prospective jurors had been moved forward.

Next, we turn to the pattern and practice evidence adduced at petitioner's pretrial Swain hearing. Petitioner subpoenaed a number of current and former Dallas County assistant district attorneys, judges, and others who had observed firsthand the prosecution's conduct during jury selection over a number of years. Although most of the witnesses denied the existence of a systematic policy to exclude African-Americans, others disagreed. A Dallas County district judge testified that, when he had served in the District Attorney's Office from the late-1950's to early-1960's, his superior warned him that he would be fired if he permitted any African-Americans to serve on a jury. Similarly, another Dallas County district judge and former assistant district attorney from 1976 to 1978 testified that he believed the office had a systematic policy of excluding African-Americans from juries.

Of more importance, the defense presented evidence that the District Attorney's Office had adopted a formal policy to exclude minorities from jury service. A 1963 circular by the District Attorney's Office instructed its prosecutors to exercise peremptory strikes against minorities: " `Do not take Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.' " App. 710. A manual entitled "Jury Selection in a Criminal Case" was distributed to prosecutors. It contained an article authored by a former prosecutor (and later a judge) under the direction of his superiors in the District Attorney's Office, outlining the reasoning for excluding minorities from jury service. Although the manual was written in 1968, it remained in circulation until 1976, if not later, and was available at least to one of the prosecutors in Miller-El's trial. Id., at 749, 774, 783.

Some testimony casts doubt on the State's claim that these practices had been discontinued before petitioner's trial. For example, a judge testified that, in 1985, he had to exclude a prosecutor from trying cases in his courtroom for race-based discrimination in jury selection. Other testimony indicated that the State, by its own admission, once requested a jury shuffle in order to reduce the number of African-Americans in the venire. Id., at 788. Concerns over the exclusion of African-Americans by the District Attorney's Office were echoed by Dallas County's Chief Public Defender.

This evidence had been presented by petitioner, in support of his Batson claim, to the state and federal courts that denied him relief. It is against this background that we examine whether petitioner's case should be heard by the Court of Appeals.

II ...

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