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Justices won’t hear Black death row inmate’s claims of racially biased jurors

In the trial of a Black man for the murder of his white wife and biracial son, neither the defense nor the prosecution moved to strike jurors who opposed interracial marriage.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court's three liberal justices dissented with the majority's decision Tuesday not to review the case of a Black man who claims he was sentenced to death by racially biased jurors in violation of his constitutional right to 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, Thomas’ counsel performed well below an objective standard of reasonableness," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion. "This deficient performance prejudiced Thomas by depriving him of a fair trial. The state court’s contrary decision was an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law."

In 2005, Andre Thomas was charged with capital murder in Texas for killing his estranged wife, their child and his wife's child from a previous relationship.

After removing their hearts because he believed it would “set them free from evil,” and then stabbing himself, Thomas turned himself in and confessed to his gruesome actions.

Thomas pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. While incarcerated and awaiting trial, he removed one of his own eyeballs before eventually removing the other years later.

Though the state agreed that Thomas was psychotic during his offense, it prevailed in arguing that “his psychosis was voluntarily induced" by ingesting cough medicine before the murders.

Thomas was sentenced to death in the nation's leading state for inmate executions.

On appeal, he argues he was denied the right to a fair trial because his fate was decided by an all-white jury, three of whom expressed firm opposition to interracial marriage and procreation in their written juror questionnaires.

The Supreme Court's majority rejected his case without explanation Tuesday, spurring the dissenting opinion from Sotomayor, who was joined by fellow Barack Obama-appointed Justice Elena Kagan and newcomer Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, appointed by President Joe Biden.

The only three justices on the bench appointed by Democratic presidents found that "as we have often recognized, seating even one biased juror infringes on a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right."

"Whether Thomas’ psychological disturbances explain or in any way excuse his commission of murder, however, is beside the point. 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," Sotomayor wrote.

Because Thomas is Black, his wife was white and their son was biracial, the prospective jurors were asked about their views on people of different racial backgrounds marrying and/or having children.

One of the jurors indicated that he “vigorously oppose[d]” interracial marriage and that he was “not afraid to say so,” and for his reasoning he wrote: “I don’t believe God intended for this.” But during an interview with the defense counsel, the juror said their opinion on the subject wouldn't impact their judgment in the case.

Two other jurors, as well as an alternate juror, answered that they too opposed interracial marriage, "but try to keep my feelings to myself." One explained that she thought interracial marriage is “harmful for the children involved because they do not have a specific race to belong to," while the other wrote, "I think we should stay with our blood line."

Neither the defense nor the prosecution chose to individually consult with the prospective jurors about their responses or question if their views could impact their verdicts at the guilt and penalty phases of the trial.

According to the dissenting justices, "there was no excuse in this case" for their failure to specifically question these jurors about their questionnaires and that "there are numerous ways to broach sensitive but necessary subjects during voir dire without invoking the ire of jurors."

Despite Thomas's defense counsel having peremptory challenges available during the trial, they failed to request that the court strike any of these jurors for bias.

"Thomas’ offense involved not only interracial violence, but also interracial intimacy. Historians have long recognized that interracial marriage, sex, and procreation evoke some of the most invidious forms of prejudice and violence," Sotomayor wrote.

She added, "Far from avoiding these incendiary topics, the State fanned the flames in urging the jury to sentence Thomas to death."

In a divided opinion last year, the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit affirmed a Texas federal judge's decision to deny Thomas' habeas petition, finding that there was "no evidence that the jury's decision was racially motivated," and that counsel's failure to probe the controversial jurors was likely "a tactical decision."

Sotomayor questioned the idea that it was a strategic decision by the attorneys.

"It is no doubt true that there may sometimes be strategic reasons not to examine jurors for racial bias, but counsel cited none here. To the contrary, the hostility the jurors expressed in their questionnaires strongly suggested that their presence would infect the proceedings with racial bias," she wrote.

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