When Andre Thomas, a 21-year-old Black man, was sentenced to death in 2005, it was at the hands of an all-white jury—a quarter of whom had openly expressed racist views during the jury selection process. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Thomas’s appeal based on the jurors’ biases.
While the court declined to hear Thomas’ case, the justices did hear oral arguments on another prominent Texas case. Rodney Reed, a Black man, was also convicted by an all-white jury for the murder of Stacey Stites, a white woman, in 1998. At issue this week was whether the state would test DNA that Reed’s team believes will exonerate him. Reed’s case has garnered national attention in recent years, with celebrities and politicians including Senator Ted Cruz expressing concerns about the original verdict.
The fact of Thomas’ guilt, on the other hand, was never in question. On the morning of March 27, 2004, he stabbed his estranged wife to death along with their 4-year-old son and her 13-month-old daughter. Afterward, Thomas turned the knife on himself, stabbing himself in the chest. After he survived his self-inflicted wounds, he turned himself in to the police. The crimes, his lawyers would later argue, were a frenzy brought on by a schizophrenic and psychotic episode. He was driven by religious fervor—he believed his wife and children were consorting with the devil.
In jail, shortly after committing the murders, Thomas was allegedly compelled by a Bible verse to gouge out his right eye with his fingers. Later, after being sentenced to death, he removed his left eye as well.
Thomas’ mental state at the time of the murders, as well as his history of mental illness that stretches back to his childhood, are textbook examples of mitigating evidence—things the jury is supposed to consider when determining whether to impose the death penalty. Mitigating evidence includes things like long-term abuse, intellectual disabilities, and—as in Thomas’ case—severe mental illness. But Thomas’ lawyers argue some of the jurors who sentenced him to death were unable to fairly consider his mental illness, their judgment clouded by racism.
During the jury selection process, three eventual jurors and one alternate admitted to being opposed to people of different races marrying and having children. One wrote that people “should stay with our Blood Line.” Two of the eventual jurors weren’t asked any follow-up questions by the defense. Thomas’ wife, Laura Boren Thomas, was a white woman.
“We human beings are not always aware of the full extent of our own biases, and we’re not always able to control for or correct for them, even in really important life-and-death types of decisions,” said Samuel Sommers, professor and chair of the department of psychology at Tufts University. Sommers studies the way implicit and explicit biases affect jury decisions.
Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the Death Penalty Information Center said the racial bias in Thomas’ case was particularly extreme.
“The importance of having a jury that did not already come with existing bias is very strong [in Thomas’ case],” Ndulue said. “It’s really profound to see the lack of effort on the part of an attorney that would allow these jurors to serve.”
But Ndulue said that capital cases are often plagued with racism at every step. She said the process of screening potential jurors for their willingness to impose the death penalty often filters out many people of color, leaving capital cases in the hands of majority-white juries.
She added that when jurors consider mitigating evidence, that’s “a stage at which there’s a significant amount of discretion for jury decision making. And that we know that at those most discretionary moments, those are times where implicit biases can really run rampant.”
During Thomas’ trial, the prosecutor appeared to prey on these jurors’ biases. He implored the jury to impose the death sentence lest they risk having Thomas, who had dated multiple white women in the past, “ask your daughter out, or your granddaughter out? After watching the string of girls that came up here … are you going to take that chance?” The prosecution also suggested that Thomas’ psychosis was the result of his taking cough medicine, which would render the insanity defense moot in Texas.
Although the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, three justices—Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson—dissented. “Thomas’ conviction and death sentence clearly violate the constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel,” the dissent reads, pointing to the lawyers’ failure to interrogate the jurors on their questionnaire answers.
Maurie Levin, Thomas’ lawyer, points to this dissent to emphasize the importance of accountability for racial bias in the justice system.
Justice Sotomayor “talks about the duty of the courts to confront racial animus in the justice system, and that is a thread that has run through many of their decisions. Her conclusion—and I certainly agree—is that the failure to correct this error, which is so loaded with racial animus, is an abdication of their role.”
Although the Supreme Court’s denial is a blow to the defense, the decision to hear Reed’s case and not Thomas’ doesn’t necessarily speak to each case’s relative merit. The Supreme Court takes fewer than 100 cases on merit each year out of thousands and thousands of petitions.
“It’s not just death penalty cases. It’s every kind of case: It’s voting rights; it’s abortion; it’s taxes,” said Jim Marcus, professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. “It’s very, very difficult to get into the Supreme Court just to get your case heard.”
The Grayson County District Attorney’s Office has indicated it will now pursue an execution date for Thomas. The office did not respond to the Texas Observer’s request for comment. Levin said it’s too early to say what the defense’s next steps are, but she doesn’t believe Thomas should ever be deemed competent enough to be executed.
“To contemplate seeking the execution of this psychotic, schizophrenic man is just an ugly spectacle,” Levin said. “It would not make Texans any safer, and would really cast a shadow on Texas’ reputation.”