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
But Tony Walker, the father of slain hotel clerk Douglas Walker, says
torment is what his son's killer deserves. 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
"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
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
"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
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
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
(source: Dallas Morning News)