Attorney files petition for reprieve

Nothing is certain on Texas’ death row. I learned that last Thursday.Imagine my surprise as I picked up the Houston Chronicle that day and discovered that “Miller-El” was no longer a name confined to 60 square feet of concrete in the Polunsky Unit”Miller-El” is national news.On Wednesday, Feb. 6, Jim Marcus, attorney for death row inmate Thomas Miller-El, filed a petition for a recommendation of a reprieve of execution and commutation of death sentence to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and a legal brief with the United States Supreme Court. The petition claims Miller-El’s death sentence given on March 24, 1986 was unfairly received and claims the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office which prosecuted him had a policy of systematically discriminating against African Americans through the use of state’s peremptory challenges.A peremptory challenge is a tool used in jury selection by both the state and the defense. Each party is allotted a specific number of peremptory strikes, and may use them to remove from the jury panel persons that it does not want to serve on the jury. The party does not have to provide any reason for the strike, but no potential juror may be struck because of race or gender.Marcus claims the prosecutor in Miller-El’s trial deployed peremptory challenges to strike 91 percent of the qualified African American jurors who were eligible to serve on the case’s jury. Marcus cites numerous pieces of evidence that point to an unfair trial, among which is an except from a book entitled “Prosecution Course” put out by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. The book was developed as part of a course for new prosecuting attorneys in the state. Assistant District Jon Sparling, assistant district attorney at the time, wrote a section on “Jury Selection in a Criminal Case” for the manual, in which he told prosecutors, “You are not looking for any member of a minority group, of which may subject him to oppressionthey almost always empathize with the accused.” In his training manual, Sparling also said, “I don’t like women jurors because I can’t trust them,” and told prosecutors they “are not looking for a fair juror, but rather a biased, and sometimes hypocritical individual who believes that defendants are different in kind, rather than degree.””The policy in a nutshell was to try to get an all-white jury of white men,” stated former Judge and Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Larry W. Baraka.Manipulating jury selection is not only wrong, but also illegal. This, claims Miller-El’s attorney Jim Marcus, is the ground on which Miller-El should be given a commutation.”Unlike a pardon, commutation does not ‘cancel’ the defendant’s guilt, nor does it imply forgiveness,” explained Marcus. “If the board and the Governor choose to commute Mr. Miller-El’s sentence, he will still stand convicted of the most serious offense known under Texas law.”While many may see this petition as a last resort to stopping an execution, Marcus sees it as much more.”Proceeding with his execution under these circumstances will condone the use of race stereotypes in the process of determining who deserves to die in the state of Texas,” Marcus said. “A commutation is necessary to affirm that the Texas criminal justice system has evolved beyond its ignoble past.” Marcus aims not only to rectify the wrongful jury selection process in the case of Miller-El, but also to see that the state of Texas takes a stance against biased selection.Dorothy Miller-El confirmed what I believed to be slight inaccuracies reported in the Houston Chronicle article. Some of the “facts” stated weren’t in sync with the information I had obtained. The article prompted me to seek more information, and I began with a likely source–the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Public Information Office. The motion, of course, is public information.Larry Fitzgerald was the public information voice I received on the other end of the telephone Friday morning.I had barely gotten my first question out when Fitzgerald informed me he had read my previous articles, and was none too happy with their content. “I think your articles are a piece of trash,” he said. I was taken aback, to say the least. I thought Fitzgerald’s job was to give public informationnot personal criticism.I tried to get back on track with my questions, to which his immediate response was, “I don’t mind talking to The Houstonian, but I certainly will not talk to you.””So, what you are telling me is that you will not give me any public information,” I replied.(a pause) “Yes,” he confirmed, then promptly hung up.What can I say? To truly know TDCJis to loathe them. I should have known t a voice for the state was not going to give me the information I wanted, even if I was rightly entitled to it. After my bust with TDCJ, I decided to go straight to the source. Jim Marcus sent me a complete copy of Miller-El’s petition, whose thickness rivals some of my English Norton Anthologies. Time will only tell if Marcus’ efforts to spare the life of Miller-El will be realized. The board will rule on the petition on Feb. 15, but the decision may not be made public until Feb. 19a mere two days before Miller-El’s scheduled execution. Until then, Miller-El and the rest of America, waits.What is on one’s mind when death inevitably approaches? I’ll find out from Miller-El next week.

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