Naked City

Supremes storm Texas death row

Billy Ray Nelson
Billy Ray Nelson
Robert Tennard
Robert Tennard

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed for the second time on June 28 to accept the Texas death row appeal of Thomas Miller-El, who was convicted of the murder of hotel clerk Douglas Walker during a 1985 robbery in Irving, by a jury from which prosecutors struck all but one black potential juror. Miller-El argued against the conviction, claiming jury bias and prosecutorial misconduct, but his claim was denied by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year the Supremes sent the case back to the 5th Circuit, ruling that the court had not fully considered Miller-El's evidence. Upon rehearing, the 5th Circuit again denied Miller-El's claims, and on Monday the high court again agreed to review the case – a move that court watchers said is likely a response to the 5th Circuit's apparent insistence on micromanagement and its apparent refusal to respect the high court's authority.

Thomas Miller-El
Thomas Miller-El

Earlier, the court on June 24 ruled that Texas death row inmate Robert Tennard, convicted in the 1985 Houston murder of Larry Neblett, did not have an opportunity to present mitigating evidence related to his low IQ to his jury, sending that case as well back to the 5th Circuit for reconsideration. At issue is whether Texas defendants tried before 1991 – when state law changed regarding what evidence a jury can consider during the sentencing phase of a death penalty case – had an opportunity to present evidence of low intelligence as mitigating evidence. The answer is no, UT School of Law professors Robert Owen and Jordan Steiker argued before the high court in March. The court now agrees.

Death penalty watchers opined that the Tennard decision could lead to the reconsideration of a number of other death cases – a prediction that appears to have come true. On June 28, the high court sent the case of Texas death row inmate Billy Ray Nelson – also convicted before the changes in Texas law took effect – back to the 5th Circuit for further consideration in light of the Tennard decision.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Thomas Miller-El, Robert Tennard, Billy Ray Nelson, U.S. Supreme Court, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, death penalty, Robert Owen, Jordan Steiker

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