A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ordered a new trial for longtime Capital Punishment Clinic client Jon Reed, concluding that the prosecution’s asserted reasons for striking African-Americans from the jury were mere pretexts for discrimination.
In a unanimous opinion by Circuit Judge Edward C. Prado on January 12, 2009, the court determined that during Reed’s 1983 trial for capital murder, Dallas County prosecutors had acted with racial animus in exercising peremptory challenges against potential African-American jurors. Therefore, the court concluded Reed was entitled to habeas corpus relief based on his Batson challenge.
In Batson v. Kentucky (1986), the United States Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors may not use peremptory challenges—the discretionary opportunities granted to each party to dismiss legally qualified prospective jurors—to exclude jurors based on their race. The Court ruled that this practice violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, the term “Batson challenge” has come to mean the claim that a party improperly exercised its peremptory challenges to exclude a cognizable group from the jury.
Reed has spent nearly thirty years on Texas’s death row after his conviction for the 1978 murder of Wanda Jean Wadle, a Braniff Airlines flight attendant. Students and faculty from the University of Texas Law School’s Capital Punishment Clinic have been involved in Reed’s defense since 1999. Reed is represented by UT Law professors Jim Marcus and Rob Owen of the Capital Punishment Clinic, and by former Clinic attorney Meredith Martin Rountree. Owen argued the case before the Court of Appeals on December 2, 2008.
“It’s a pleasant surprise that the court decided the case so swiftly,” Owen said. “The judges appear to be very confident in their conclusion that this case has to be retried.”
Speaking about the law students’ involvement in the case, Owen said, “I can’t even count the number of students who’ve met Mr. Reed and devoted time to working on his case over the years.”
Owen added, “They have performed just about every type of legal work imaginable on his behalf—such as interviewing witnesses and trial jurors, obtaining and reviewing documents, conducting legal research, and drafting pleadings. This result shows the high quality of the work our students have contributed to the case. A number of students from the Capital Punishment Clinic also took part in helping Owen prepare for oral argument, and actually traveled to New Orleans to attend the argument in December.”
The appellate court found that the prosecutors’ tactics in Reed’s trial were nearly identical to those employed in a 1986 Dallas County murder trial that subsequently was reversed on the same legal basis by the United States Supreme Court. “In both cases,” Owen said, “Dallas County prosecutors used their discretionary strikes to remove prospective black jurors, despite the fact that those jurors had given answers that were essentially indistinguishable from those of white jurors the State announced itself ‘pleased to accept.’” Although the prosecutors denied racial bias in a post-trial hearing, the Fifth Circuit concluded that their denials were not credible in light of the other evidence in the case.
State prosecutors have the option of asking the Fifth Circuit panel to reconsider its opinion, or seeking review from the full Court of Appeals. An appeal to the United States Supreme Court is another possibility. If the State does not pursue further review, Reed’s case will be returned to the Dallas County trial court.
“We don’t know yet whether the local authorities will choose to retry the case,” Owen said. He expressed confidence that the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, which under District Attorney Craig Watkins has consistently been recognized for its efforts to correct wrongful convictions, would take a close look at the case.
“Mr. Reed has always maintained his innocence in this matter, and our years of post-trial investigation have turned up serious flaws in some of the State’s key evidence,” Owen said. “We are hopeful that our work may help correct a miscarriage of justice in Mr. Reed’s case.”
Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or firstname.lastname@example.org.