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"Nicest Guy On Death Row" Gets A Reprieve

In a ruling Friday that flew under the radar until today, US District Judge Vanessa Gilmore overturned the capital-murder conviction of Mariano Rosales, because Harris County prosecutors had improperly rejected minorities from the jury pool.

The technical term for the tossing-minority-jurors claim is a Batson challenge, after the 1986 case where the precedent was set.

And when we saw the NAACP announcement about Gilmore's decision, our first reaction was "Man, we thought Harris County prosecutors had figured out how to get around Batson challenges a long time ago."

Turns out, the case overturned Friday happened a long time ago.

Rosales was convicted in 1985; he's been appealing ever since.

All the appellate action dealt with whether a judge had fully reviewed the question of whether prosecutors had improperly used race as a reason to dismiss jurors. Up until a recent 5th Circuit ruling, courts had ruled that the question had been fully reviewed.

"None of the facts had been evaluated before," NAACP lawyer Christine Swarns tells Hair Balls. "Once we got the historical evidence in, and deposed the trial prosecutors, the answer became clear."

The underlying facts of the case are pretty much a crime of passion. Rosales went to the trailer of his wife's boyfriend and "whoever was in it was shot," Swarns says.

Local attorney Brian Wice, who's a legal analyst for Channel 2, long ago wrote a magazine piece for Texas Lawyer that examined the case. It was headlined "The Nicest Guy On Death Row."

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"He was just a guy, he didn't have any extraneous offenses; he just woke up one morning with marital problems and acted on the impulses a lot of married guys have had -- to find the guy who's been sleeping with his wife and put a bullet in his head," Wice tells Hair Balls. "It's not as if this man was ever shown to be a continuing threat to society."

Prosecutors have 30 days to appeal Gilmore's decision. Eventually, it's likely there will be a new trial.

"I'm glad it took only 23 years for them to decide," Wice says sarcastically, "that prosecutors who are not inherently racist can still improperly exclude blacks from juries because they think it will give them a leg up."

-- Richard Connelly

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