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Supreme Court rejects Black death row inmate's racial bias appeal

Three liberal justices dissented from the court's decision not to hear the case, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggesting the verdict may have been "tainted."
The gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas.
The gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas.Pat Sullivan / AP file

WASHINGTON —  The Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away a Black death row inmate’s appeal that he did not get a fair trial because several jurors had expressed opposition to interracial relationships, prompting Justice Sonia Sotomayor to suggest that the conviction may have been tainted.

The majority conservative court’s decision not to hear the case, over the dissent of Sotomayor and the two other liberal justices, leaves in place Andre Thomas’ conviction and death sentence for murdering his stepdaughter in a gruesome attack, his estranged wife, who was white, and their son.

"No jury deciding whether to recommend a death sentence should be tainted by potential racial biases that could infect its deliberation or decision, particularly where the case involved an interracial crime," Sotomayor wrote. She was joined in the dissent by Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

It is the role of courts "to safeguard the fairness of criminal trials by ensuring that jurors do not harbor, or at the very least should put aside, racially biased sentiments," Sotomayor added.

In 2004 Thomas murdered his estranged wife, Laura Boren; their 4-year-old son, Andre Boren; and his 13-month-old stepdaughter, Leyha Hughes, in Sherman, Texas. He stabbed all three to death and tried to remove their hearts, saying later that he hoped to “set them free from evil,” according to court filings. He also attempted suicide.

Death-row inmate Andre Thomas, from Texoma, Texas.
Death row inmate Andre Thomas of Texoma, Texas. Texas Department of Criminal Justice / via AP file

Thomas, now 39, turned himself in and confessed. While he was awaiting trial in the murder of Leyha Hughes, claiming he was not guilty by reason of insanity, Thomas gouged out one of his eyeballs after having read a passage in the Bible, the filings said. Years later he removed his other eye and ate it.

Prosecutors agreed that Thomas was in a psychotic state when he committed the murders but countered that it was caused by Thomas’ actions in ingesting a cough medicine that can cause irrational behavior.

At the 2005 trial in the murder of Leyha Hughes, the all-white jury found Thomas guilty and sentenced him to death.

In contesting his conviction, Thomas’ lawyers argued that the jury was tainted because three members expressed opposition to people of different races’ marrying or having children during the selection process, which was pertinent to the facts of the case because of Thomas’ marriage to Boren.

One juror said he opposed interracial relationships because it was "against God’s will," according to court filings. Another said that “we should stay within our blood line” when asked the same question. The third juror said interracial relationships harm children because “they do not have a specific race to belong to.”

At the trial, the prosecutor also asked the jury, “Are you going to take the risk about him asking your daughter out or your granddaughter out?” Thomas’ lawyers said the statement appealed to the jury’s biases.

Thomas' lawyer, Maurie Levin, called on Texas not to execute him given his mental health problems.

"No one who hears the story of Mr. Thomas’ life believes he is mentally competent," she said. "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."

A spokesperson for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thomas says his right to a fair trial under the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment was violated on two counts: that he was not tried by an impartial jury and that his lawyer was ineffective for failing to object to the jurors’ being selected.

The state’s lawyers argue in part that all three jurors said they would follow the law as instructed and could deliver an impartial verdict.