A Black Man Was Sentenced to Death by a Racist Jury. The Supreme Court Says It’s Fine.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Elena Kagan all dissented.
A Black Man Was Sentenced to Death by a Racist Jury. The Supreme Court Says It’s Fine.
Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal to overturn a death sentence for a Black man whose jury included three white people who explicitly said they opposed interracial marriage.

Though the six conservative Supreme Court justices did not provide a justification for their decision, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent saying that Andre Thomas’ 2004 conviction and death sentence “clearly violate the constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.” She was joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan. 

Advertisement

Thomas murdered his estranged wife, 4-year-old son, and 13-month-old stepdaughter, and attempted to kill himself while having a psychotic episode in 2004. An all-white Texas jury convicted him and recommended a death sentence the following year.

After the murders, Thomas removed both of his eyeballs in separate instances, rendering himself blind. Thomas, who began having auditory hallucinations when he was 10 years old, has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia

One of the jurors in his case said he thought it was “wrong to have [interracial] relationships,” another said they “oppose[d] people of different racial backgrounds marrying and/or having children,” while a third said it was “harmful for the children involved because they do not have a specific race to belong to.” During jury selection, the first alternate juror also expressed opposition to both interracial and gay marriage. 

Thomas’ appellate attorneys had argued that he had received ineffective counsel from his lawyer, who failed to object to the jurors, and that he had not received a fair trial from an impartial jury. The notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit upheld Thomas’ conviction, a ruling Sotomayor said she would have vacated. 

Advertisement

“It is ultimately the duty of the courts ‘to confront racial animus in the justice system,’” Sotomayor wrote, quoting retired Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in a similar 2017 case. “That responsibility requires courts, including this one, vigilantly to safeguard the fairness of criminal trials by ensuring that jurors do not harbor, or at the very least could put aside, racially biased sentiments.”

“The errors in this case render Thomas’ death sentence not only unreliable, but unconstitutional,” Sotomayor wrote in her 15-page dissent. “I would not permit the State to execute Andre Thomas in light of the ineffective assistance that he received.” 

In a statement to VICE News, Thomas’ attorney said the Supreme Court’s decision “abdicates the Court’s role and responsibility” to confront racism in the justice system, and that for Texas to “pursue his execution would be nothing but an ugly spectacle and would not make Texans safer.”

“No one who hears the story of Mr. Thomas’ life believes he is mentally competent,” lawyer Maurie Levin told VICE News. “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.”

Though the Supreme Court’s six conservatives offered no defense of their decision not to hear the appeal, the move mirrors positions they took during the last highly controversial term

In May, the Supreme Court ruled in Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez that federal courts are unable to open evidentiary hearings on claims of ineffective counsel if those claims weren’t first raised during state criminal proceedings, a decision Sotomayor also dissented from and called “perverse” and “illogical.” 

And in another case during the last term, Vega v. Tekoh, the Court ruled that defendants who’ve been deprived of their Miranda rights cannot sue the police officers who deprive them of those rights. In her dissent, Kagan wrote that the Supreme Court “injures the right by denying the remedy.” 

“Sometimes, as a result, a defendant will be wrongly convicted and spend years in prison,” Kagan wrote. “He may succeed, on appeal or in habeas, in getting the conviction reversed. But then, what remedy does he have for all the harm he has suffered?”

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.