The Supreme Court denied review Tuesday in the case of Andre Thomas, a Black man sentenced to death in Texas for the murder of his wife (who was white) and their biracial son by an all-white jury that included three people who expressed opposition to interracial marriage and miscegenation.
These jurors said on questionnaires that they “oppose” or “vigorously oppose people of different racial backgrounds marrying and/or having children,” that interracial relationships were against God’s will, and that people “should stay with [their] Blood Line.”
But Mr. Thomas’s counsel did not even question two of them about their stated bias, much less strike them from the jury even though they had peremptory strikes available. And as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in dissent, the one juror who was questioned about his views on race “never retreated from his ‘beliefs about interracial marriage.'”
Views about interracial intimacy are even more highly charged than those about interracial violence, Justice Sotomayor explained. “Historians have long recognized that interracial marriage, sex, and procreation evoke some of the most invidious forms of prejudice and violence,” she wrote.
In this case, the State “fanned the flames” when it urged the jury to impose the death penalty. After the prosecutor asked jurors, “Are you going to take the risk about [Thomas] asking your daughter out, or your granddaughter out?” and reminded them about the “string of girls” who testified they’d had romantic relationships with Mr. Thomas, the all-white jury sentenced him to death.
On appeal, Mr. Thomas argued that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to question or strike the biased jurors, and as a result, he was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury that included three jurors who expressed bias against him.
The state courts and lower federal court denied relief, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding in a divided opinion that defense counsel’s “decision to forego questioning three of the four jurors about racial bias was simply a matter of trial strategy.”
But no reasonable strategy would lead a defense lawyer not to question these jurors, Justice Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson. “To the contrary, the hostility the jurors expressed in their questionnaires strongly suggested that their presence would infect the proceedings with racial bias.”
The dissent found that Mr. Thomas’s conviction and death sentence clearly violate the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. “By failing to challenge, or even question, jurors who were hostile to interracial marriage in a capital case involving that explosive topic,” the dissent wrote, “Thomas’ counsel performed well below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
The Court’s decision contributed to a long history of state and federal courts tolerating racial bias and discrimination in the selection of juries.
The dissent underscored that courts—including the Supreme Court—are duty-bound to confront racial prejudice and ensure that racially biased jurors are not seated, especially in a death penalty case. Citing the Court’s own recent precedent, the dissent wrote:
No jury deciding whether to recommend a death sentence should be tainted by potential racial biases that could infect its deliberations or decision, particularly where the case involved an interracial crime. Ignoring issues of racial bias in the jury system “damages ‘both the fact and the perception’ of the jury’s role as ‘a vital check against the wrongful exercise of power by the State.’”