Dallas Morning News
TEXAS: Now off Texas death row, inmate talks of jail, not crime
After 2 decades on death row, an overturned conviction and then a guilty plea, Thomas Joe Miller-El still won't admit he is a murderer.
He pleaded guilty in court Wednesday but would not discuss his crimes Thursday during a jailhouse interview with The Dallas Morning News . The interview touched on the Supreme Court ruling overturning his original death sentence, life on death row, and his 1986 trial that infamously highlighted racial bias in jury selection by Dallas County prosecutors.
Mr. Miller-El, 56, spoke philosophically and offered few specifics during the 50-minute discussion inside the Dallas County Jail. And he often referred to himself as "we" or "our."
"We never saw ourselves as being on death row. We saw ourselves as being on life row," Mr. Miller-El said. "Death row is a cemetery." He said that it is "compatible with having lived in hell and enduring hell's fire and hell's torment."
But Tony Walker, the father of slain hotel clerk Douglas Walker, says torment is what his son'killer deser ves. Mr. Walker said Mr. Miller-El should have been executed already.
"Now he's scammed the justice system again," Mr. Walker said Thursday. "My son just got murdered again in 2008. Now, I got to make sure he doesn't get out. It's another stab in the back."
In pleading guilty, Mr. Miller-El waived his right to appeal in exchange for prosecutors' agreeing not to seek the death penalty.
Mr. Walker's sister, Renee Brinks, said she and her family are angry because the plea bargain was signed before they were told what was happening.
"We have been the victims, yet he is the one who is looked at as the victim in all the news," Ms. Brinks said. "We have been just livid with this plea bargain."
Mike Heiskell, the special prosecutor in the case assigned because a current high-level prosecutor in the Dallas County district attorney's office once represented Mr. Miller-El, said Thursday that he notified the family Wednesday after the documents were signed but before the court proceeding that made the plea bargain official.
"I told them it was my decision, based on my considered judgment," Mr. Heiskell said. The Fort Worth lawyer said he had no doubt jurors would convict Mr. Miller-El but wasn't certain they would again sentence him to death.
Both Tony Walker and his daughter said they don't understand why the Supreme Court overturned Mr. Miller-El's conviction in 2005 and why the facts of the case were not an issue then.
"All they considered was that he was black. That's it," Ms. Brinks said. "We feel the state of Texas and the Supreme Court, they all dropped the ball. They smoothed it over so it wouldn't go on any longer."
During Thursday's interview, Mr. Miller-El spoke softly and paused frequently in the middle of sentences to think about what he wanted to say. His hair is more salt than pepper, and he carried with him a worn 1999 date book.
In pleading guilty, Mr. Miller-El admitted to the 1985 murder of Mr. Walker, a 25-year-old Irving hotel clerk who was shot in the back after being bound and gagged during a robbery. Another clerk, Donald Ray Hall, was shot and left paralyzed from the chest down. Mr. Hall, who could not be reached for comment, later identified Mr. Miller-El as his assailant.
Mr. Miller-El will serve a life sentence for capital murder and 20 years for aggravated robbery. His sentences will be served consecutively.
Mr. Miller-El originally was convicted and sentenced to death in March 1986, a month before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision – Batson vs. Kentucky – that eliminated the practice of racial discrimination in jury selection.
That ruling, which holds to this day, cited statistics from a 1986 series by The Dallas Morning News on discrimination in jury selection. The statistics showed that in 100 randomly selected Dallas County felony trials, 86 % of blacks eligible for jury duty were eliminated by prosecutors' peremptory challenges.
A petition on Mr. Miller-El's behalf submitted to the Supreme Court alleged Dallas County prosecutors used peremptory challenges – legal objections that allow lawyers to dismiss prospective jurors without explanation – to eliminate 10 of 11 qualified blacks from the jury panel.
Mr. Miller-El is eligible for parole in 7 years, but attorneys involved in the case said it's unlikely he will ever leave prison. Mr. Miller-El said he's not quite accustomed to the idea that he won't have another execution date.
"After being on death row for so long and having the thought on my mind that I will be executed, it will probably take us 3 years for us to get adjusted," he said. "The process has really traumatized us in many ways."
THE SAGA OF THOMAS JOE MILLER-EL
Nov. 16, 1985: Douglas Walker, a 25-year-old hotel clerk, dies after being bound, gagged and shot in the back during an early morning robbery at a Holiday Inn near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. A co-worker, Donald Ray Hall, 29, survives the shooting but is left paralyzed.
Nov. 20, 1985: Thomas Joe Miller-El is arrested after a shootout in Houston.
Nov. 22, 1985: Dorothy Miller-El, his wife and a former worker at the hotel, and Kennard Sonny Flowers are arrested in the robbery and murder.
December 1985: Mr. Miller-El is indicted on a charge of capital murder after Mr. Flowers agrees to testify against him.
March 1986: During jury selection, a judge denies a defense motion to quash the jury after prosecutors used their peremptory strikes to eliminate 10 of 11 eligible black jurors. The seated jury includes nine Anglos, one black, one Hispanic and one Filipino. During the trial, Mr. Hall identifies Mr. Miller-El as the shooter. Mr. Miller-El is sentenced to die by injection.
April 1986: The U.S. Supreme Court bars race bias in jury selection nationwide in the landmark case of Batson vs. Kentucky. It cites a study by The Dallas Morning News that shows the near-total exclusion of eligible black jurors by the Dallas County district attorney's office.
September 1986: Mrs. Miller-El is convicted of murder and attempted capital murder by a jury and receives 2 consecutive life sentences for helping her husband in the hotel robbery. Those sentences are later reduced to 15 years each.
March 1988: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals orders hearings in Dallas to decide whether prosecutors used race bias in excluding eligible black jurors in Mr. Miller-El's trial. 2 months later, the trial judge rules that he found no racial motive on the part of prosecutors.
November 1992: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upholds Mr. Miller-El's capital murder conviction.
November 1992: Mrs. Miller-El is paroled from prison for her role in the robbery and murder.
February 2002: Mr. Miller-El's appeals attorneys persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to stay his execution while the justices hear arguments on the issue of race bias in jury selection.
February 2003: In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court orders the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider Mr. Miller-El's appeal after citing evidence that the Dallas County district attorney's office in 1986 was "suffused with bias."
December 2004: For the second time, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on whether Mr. Miller-El was denied a fair trial because eligible black jurors were discriminated against and barred from the jury in his death penalty trial.
June 13, 2005: The Supreme Court reverses Mr. Miller-El's conviction and orders a new trial.
July 8, 2005: Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill announces that Mr. Miller-El will be retried. He says the office will seek the death penalty.
Feb. 1, 2007: A state district judge removes the Dallas County district attorney's office, now under new DA Craig Watkins, from Mr. Miller-El's case because a high-ranking prosecutor, Kevin Brooks, once represented Mr. Miller-El. Veteran Fort Worth defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Michael P. Heiskell is appointed special prosecutor.
Wednesday: Mr. Miller-El accepts a plea bargain for capital murder and aggravated robbery. He receives a life sentence for the capital murder and 20 years for the aggravated robbery with the sentences to be served consecutively.