The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed the death sentence of one of Texas' longest-serving death row inmates, a man who came within minutes of being executed last year before the court granted him a reprieve to hear his claims that prosecution misconduct had tainted his case.
In a 7-2 ruling yesterday, the court said Delma Banks Jr. was entitled to a new sentencing hearing as well as an opportunity to pursue his claim that prosecutors withheld crucial evidence during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that prosecutors withheld evidence at Banks' trial, then covered up their misconduct for nearly two decades as Banks moved closer to execution.
"When police or prosecutors conceal significant exculpatory or impeaching material in the state's possession," Ginsburg wrote, "it is ordinarily incumbent on the state to set the record straight."
While Banks' case is unlikely to affect those of other death row inmates, it again signals the high court's recent uneasiness over how the death penalty is applied and a concern for how misconduct by trial prosecutors threatens the integrity of the criminal justice system.
Only 14 other prisoners have been on death row in Texas longer than Banks. The state leads the country with more than 300 executions since capital punishment resumed in the United States more than 25 years ago.
Banks, now 45, had eaten his final meal, was in a holding cell next to the state's death chamber in Huntsville, and was less than 10 minutes from receiving a lethal injection when the court issued a reprieve last March.
Banks, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the 1980 murder of Richard Whitehead, a 16-year-old who had worked with Banks at a fast-food restaurant near Texarkana.
Whitehead was shot three times. His body was found in a park.
Banks had no criminal record at the time of Whitehead's murder, and at trial and over the course of his appeals he has maintained he is innocent.
Banks' attorneys, led by George Kendall, claimed that prosecutors in Bowie County withheld crucial evidence that would have cast doubt on his guilt, including that one key witness was a paid informant while another had been coached by the authorities before he testified.
Kendall said the case should deter prosecutors from misconduct and should emphasize to appeals courts that such claims need thorough examination.
"Once the facts came out, it was clear the state had done some bad things at trial and covered it up," said Kendall.
"I would hope that this decision would have the message that these prosecution misconduct claims, some of them are really meritorious and they need real review."
"But," he added, "one has to wonder why the case had to go this far. Why didn't the other courts grant relief before it got to the Supreme Court?"
In a separate case yesterday, the court ruled that a law protecting older workers from age discrimination on the job doesn't cover workers over 40 when employers give better benefits to older colleagues.
The court, in the 6-3 decision, said a federal anti-discrimination law is meant to protect older workers from preferential treatment being given to younger workers, but the law does not apply in reverse.
The case had been closely watched because about 70 million U.S. workers are 40 or older, roughly half the nation's work force.
The decision blocks a lawsuit over a benefits change that helped older workers at a division of General Dynamics Corp., which makes battle tanks and combat vehicles for the military.
The Supreme Court reversed an appeals court decision that said the company could be sued under the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects people over 40 from age bias.
General Dynamics had maintained that Congress intended to protect "older" employees.
Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority, agreed.
"The statute does not mean to stop an employer from favoring an older employee over a younger one," he wrote.
But in a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas complained that "this should have been an easy case."
The law, he said, "clearly allows for suits brought by the relatively young when discriminated against in favor of the relatively old."
Also in dissent were Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.