- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004


The Supreme Court, acting on a case that has become a cause celebre among capital punishment opponents, overturned the death sentence of a long-serving Texas inmate who claimed prosecutors played dirty and withheld evidence at his trial.

The ruling, announced yesterday, came in the case of a man who was within minutes of execution before the court stepped in last year to stop it.

Delma Banks, one of the country’s longest-serving death row inmates, was sentenced to execution for the 1980 killing of a 16-year-old former co-worker at a fast-food restaurant. Prosecutors said Banks wanted the victim’s car, and shot the teenager three times “for the hell of it.”

The high court’s 7-2 ruling means Banks can continue to press his appeals in lower courts.

Banks maintains he is innocent, and that he was framed by lying witnesses who were bought off by the state.

Banks was able to document how prosecutors kept quiet as key witnesses against him lied on the stand, and how the state hid those witnesses’ links to police through round after round of appeals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

“When police or prosecutors conceal significant exculpatory or impeaching material, it is ordinarily incumbent on the state to set the record straight,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer fully agreed with Justice Ginsburg.

“A rule declaring ‘prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,’ is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process,” Justice Ginsburg said.

Banks claimed his original attorney failed to present evidence about Banks’ family and background that might have persuaded a jury to spare Banks a death sentence, but the Supreme Court said it did not need to review that claim to lift the death sentence.

The facts of the Banks case are tangled and unusual, meaning that the ruling in his favor may have little effect on other death row inmates or on future prosecutions.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia did not agree that Banks’ jury would have spared him a death sentence had it known that a key witness was a paid informant, but they still would have sent his case back to a federal appeals court for further consideration.

“The jury knew that Banks had murdered a 16-year-old on a whim, had violently attacked and threatened a relative shortly before the murder, and was willing to assist another individual in committing armed robberies,” Justice Thomas wrote for the two.

Banks was scheduled to die last March, and was nine minutes away from execution when the Supreme Court stepped in.

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