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Killer put on death row by jury infected with prejudice loses high court appeal

All three of the court's liberal justices dissented Monday, saying the case highlights where voir dire can fall short of protecting civil rights.

WASHINGTON (CN) — After the Supreme Court refused Monday to entertain claims of racial bias from a Black man on death row, the court's three liberal justices railed in dissent against the Texas justice system's choice to ignore the plain legal error.

“When racial bias infects a jury in a capital case, it deprives a defendant of his right to an impartial tribunal in a life-or-death context, and it ‘poisons public confidence’ in the judicial process,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, joined in the opinion by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

The case surrounds the murder for hire of Dr. Kendra Hatcher, a pediatric dentist whose relationship with her new boyfriend, Ricky Paniagua, began just three months earlier when Paniagua broke up with his girlfriend of 2 1/2 years, Brenda Delgado.

An aspiring dental hygienist, Delgado offered drugs and money to Kristopher Love to shoot Hatcher for her. Crystal Cortes, a single mom who would sometimes bring her son to the pool in Delgado's apartment complex, would act as the getaway driver. Days before Paniagua and Hatcher were to take a trip to Cancun, Love and Cortes followed the woman, learned her routine and how to enter her apartment building’s parking garage.

On Sept. 2, 2015, while Delgado dined in a Chili's to protect her alibi, Cortes and Love waited for Hatcher in her parking garage. Love shot Hatcher in the head after she exited her car. Though he stole some of her belongings to make the crime look like a robbery gone wrong, surveillance cameras recorded the getaway vehicle, and Cortes confessed to everything, ultimately testifying against Love, who was convicted of capital murder by a Dallas County jury and sentenced to death in October 2018. The jury unanimously concluded that there was a sufficient probability that Love would commit future violent crimes and that no mitigating circumstances would warrant not giving the defendant a sentence of life.

As Sotomayor explains in the dissent, however, racial prejudice infected Love's trial from the start. During jury selection, the court refused to grant Love's defense an extra peremptory strike to remove a juror who spoke in voir dire about his belief that “non-white” races were statistically more violent than the white race.

Love insisted after his conviction that the trial violated his right to an impartial jury, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against him in April 2021, concluding that, even if there was an error in jury selection, it was a harmless one.

Apart from the dissenting justices, the Supreme Court made no comment Monday on its rejection of Love's petition for a writ of certiorari. The court did not take up any cases in this morning's order list.

Love’s Dallas-based attorney John Tatum voiced his disappointment in the case's outcome.

“Obviously, I agree with the dissent that our legal system needs to cleanse itself of racial bias in jury selection and stop improperly using harmless error rules to block the application of laws we already have to protect the accused citizen from any racial bias in the application of criminal justice in this country,” Tatum said in an email this afternoon.

Sotomayor said she would have vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case for proper consideration. “The task of reviewing the record to determine whether a juror was fair and impartial is challenging, but it must be undertaken, especially when a person’s life is on the line,” she wrote. “I would ensure that Love’s claim is heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals, rather than leave these questions unanswered. I respectfully dissent.”

Calling the question at hand an important for the Supreme Court to resolve, Sotomayor also emphasized that seating a racially biased juror “can never be harmless.” She further stated that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “never considered Love’s claim on the merits,” dismissing his appeal on an “inapposite” state-law rule. 

“The court concluded that any error was harmless because Love had been provided with two extra peremptory strikes earlier in the jury selection proceeding, which he had used before the juror at issue was questioned,” Sotomayor wrote. “That decision was plainly erroneous. An already-expended peremptory strike is no cure for the seating of an allegedly biased juror.”

Jaclyn Lambert with the Dallas County District Attorney's did not respond to a request for comment on the dissent.

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