On Monday, April 15, Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor issued dissents over the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the petitions of two death-sentenced prisoners who alleged official misconduct in their cases. In the first case, Dillion Compton alleged that Texas prosecutors illegally used thirteen of their fifteen peremptory strikes to remove female prospective jurors because of their gender. In the second case, Kurt Michaels argued that California police officers unlawfully continued to question him after he invoked his Miranda rights, leading Mr. Michaels to eventually confess, and his confession was wrongly admitted at trial. Supreme Court justices rarely issue more than one written statement at a time regarding a certiorari decision in a capital case, and this marks the first time in at least five years that the justices have issued two dissents from denial in capital cases on the same day.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Jackson, wrote in Mr. Compton’s case that she would have summarily reversed the lower court’s decision and ordered a proper analysis of his gender discrimination claim. For Mr. Compton’s 2018 trial, the initial jury pool was 55% female, but the final jury was 33% female after the strikes. The state’s only justification for striking the women was that they allegedly opposed the death penalty. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) admitted that “the fact that only four women made it onto the jury despite the panel having more women than men does raise concerns,” but reasoned that “most” or “nearly all” of the women prosecutors struck expressed views less favorable toward the death penalty than the men who were seated on the jury. Justice Sotomayor argued that the TCCA erred by analyzing the strikes “in the aggregate” instead of the “side-by-side comparison” of struck and retained jurors that the law demands. “Striking even one prospective juror for a discriminatory reason violates the Constitution,” she wrote, and in Mr. Compton’s case, “it is clear that at least one woman struck by the State had more favorable views on the death penalty than at least one man the State did not strike.” Therefore, the state’s explanation for its strikes of women rang false and the evidence suggested “invidious discrimination” based on gender. 

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court left in place a clearly flawed decision that failed to meaningfully scrutinize whether the State of Texas engaged in gender discrimination,” said Mr. Compton’s attorney, Jennae Swiergula of the Texas Defender Service. “As Justice Sotomayor’s dissent makes clear, the evidence strongly suggests several women were struck from Mr. Compton’s jury because of their gender.”

The Texas Defender Service released a statement saying that jury discrimination is a “widespread practice” that acts “to the detriment of our entire justice system.” The Death Penalty Information Center has identified at least 65 cases in which courts overturned a conviction or death sentence in a capital case based on prosecutorial misconduct in jury selection. Though her opinion focused on gender, Justice Sotomayor noted additional evidence of racial discrimination in Mr. Compton’s jury selection. Mr. Compton is Black, but the final jury had eleven white people and one Hispanic person. The state struck the only two Black potential jurors in the pool, as well as one Hispanic man—meaning that the state used every one of its fifteen strikes on either a woman or a person of color. Jones County, where Mr. Compton’s trial occurred, is 10% Black and over one-quarter Hispanic, with less than 60% of the population identifying as non-Hispanic white. “In so many cases, prosecutors exclude able jurors from service because of the color of their skin or because they are women—without any intervention from the courts,” said the Texas Defender Service. “It means that the sentences our system produces do not reflect the view of our communities.” 

In Mr. Michaels’ case, Justice Jackson wrote that she would have summarily reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision finding that the admission of his confession did not prejudice him at the penalty phase of the trial. Mr. Michaels was accused of killing his girlfriend Christina’s mother. During the interrogation, Mr. Michaels invoked his right to remain silent, but officers unlawfully continued questioning him until he ultimately gave a detailed confession lasting over two hours. The confession was admitted in part at the guilt phase of the trial and then played in full and used heavily by the prosecutor during the penalty phase. The defense presented mitigating evidence showing Mr. Michaels’ serious history of mental illness, including a suicide attempt at age 11; childhood abuse from a violent alcoholic father who molested Mr. Michaels’ sister and tried to run both children over with a car; brain damage from physical trauma and meth use; his youth, age 22, and lack of violent criminal record; and his service in the Marines. Evidence also showed that Christina had asked Mr. Michaels to kill her mother because her mother sexually abused her. The jury deliberated for over three days before returning a verdict of death. 

In the appeal below, the Ninth Circuit was so conflicted that it issued multiple opinions: a per curiam ruling on most of the issues, and a divided set of opinions on the use of the confession during the penalty phase. The panel majority agreed that the trial court unconstitutionally admitted the confession during the penalty phase but found the admission was harmless because the facts were corroborated by other evidence. However, Judge Marsha Berzon forcefully dissented, arguing that confessions are more than just a summary of facts: they have a singular sway with the jury that can overpower mitigating evidence. “Given the substantial evidence in mitigation and the fact that the jury deliberated on the penalty for more than three days, it is my firm view that there is a real probability a single juror might have spared Michaels’s life,” Judge Berzon wrote, “but for the improperly introduced evidence used at trial.” 

Justice Jackson echoed Judge Berzon’s argument in lamenting the Supreme Court’s decision not to take the case. She wrote that the Supreme Court “has long held that courts must ‘exercise extreme caution’ when determining whether the admission at trial of an illegally obtained confession constitutes a harmless error,” but the Ninth Circuit majority failed to exercise that caution. The panel was “inattentive to the uniquely prejudicial nature of confession evidence” and treated the confession as “simply a collection of cumulative facts.” But the “Fifth Amendment protects everyone, guilty and innocent alike,” Justice Jackson argued—and “courts must be careful to safeguard the rights that our Constitution protects, even when (and perhaps especially when) evaluating errors made in cases stemming from a terrible crime.”


Compton v. Texas (2024) (Sotomayor, J., dis­sent­ing from denial of cert.); Michaels v. Davis (2024) (Jackson, J., dis­sent­ing from denial of cert.); Michaels v. Davis (9th Cir. 2022).