Preventing a Miscarriage of Justice

 

 

 

 

 

NEW YORK TIMES
April 18, 2003

Preventing a Miscarriage of Justice
Editorial

The Supreme Court is meeting today to consider the fate of Delma Banks Jr., a Texas death row inmate whose execution it temporarily halted last month. Mr. Banks's conviction was marred by malfeasance by the prosecutors, terrible work by his own lawyers and racial discrimination in jury selection. And there is serious doubt about his guilt. The Supreme Court must not allow him to be put to death.

Mr. Banks, a black man, was convicted of murder 23 years ago by an all-white jury. In jury selection, the prosecutors disqualified all four of the black potential jurors. The state did not find witnesses or evidence linking Mr. Banks directly to the crime or a motive. And it did not turn over evidence that would have allowed Mr. Banks to challenge the credibility of the main witnesses against him. Holding back that sort of material violates due process and longstanding Supreme Court precedent.

Mr. Banks had strikingly bad legal representation at trial. When the court was considering whether to impose the death penalty, his lawyer did not even bother to interview witnesses before putting them on the stand. A Federal District Court overturned Mr. Banks's death sentence on the basis of this "deficient performance." But an appeals court reversed that decision on the dubious basis that Mr. Banks could not show that he would have had a different outcome with a better lawyer.

The Supreme Court agreed to step in moments before Mr. Banks was scheduled to be put to death. It was no doubt influenced by a brief from former prosecutors, federal judges and other officials, among them William Sessions, who is a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a former federal judge in Texas. Mr. Banks's case, they said, directly implicates "the integrity of the administration of the death penalty in this country."

As troubling as Mr. Banks's case is, it is hardly isolated. A study of more than 4,000 capital cases found that nearly 70 percent of them contained serious errors. The Supreme Court should set aside Mr. Banks's execution to prevent a miscarriage of justice - and to send a message about the standard that prosecutors and courts must meet before they put someone to death.