Court negates race factor in picking juries 'Tax revolt' law in California also upheld by justices

June 19, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington BureauWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Moving dramatically to try to take race out of U.S. criminal trials, the Supreme Court yesterday barred defense lawyers from picking jurors on the basis of their race -- even if that would get a more favorable jury for the accused.

The 7-2 ruling is likely to mean that more whites accused of crimes against blacks will have to take their chances with more blacks on the jury and that more blacks accused of crimes against whites will be tried by all-white juries.

The justices, in another major ruling, upheld 8-1 a key part of California's unique 1978 "tax revolt" law, which holds down property taxes on homes long owned by the same family or individual, but allows taxes to rise sharply when a new owner buys a home. As a result of "Proposition 13," those who own 44 percent of the homes in California pay only 25 percent of residential property taxes.

The court's ruling on race in jury selection for criminal trials outlawed a tactic long used by defense lawyers in defending suspects charged with assaulting or killing someone of a different race: trying to exclude from the jury all members of the pool who are the same race as the victim.

The decision has been been awaited for years, since the justices started putting tight constitutional limits on exclusion of jurors solely because of their race.

That string of decisions reached its conclusion in the new ruling, which appears to go the furthest of any to change the way juries are chosen for trials of interracial crimes.

The new ruling prompted a sharp complaint from the court's only black member, Justice Clarence Thomas, who said that the benefits the court once saw in allowing those on trial to have members of their own class on a jury "have evaporated" and that the risk of racial bias in jury deliberations may increase.

But Justice Thomas said he felt compelled by past rulings to go along with the result this time.

The ruling came in an almost classic case of racial sensitivity in a trial in the Deep South: Three white members of a family that operated a dry-cleaning store in Albany, Ga., were charged with beating a young black woman and her husband with a baseball bat when they came into the store to pick up their cleaning.

Prosecutors expected the defense to try to keep blacks off the jury by using their automatic strikes, or peremptory challenges, against any blacks in the jury pool.

Until yesterday, the defense could have done that. It has long been a tradition that peremptory strikes can be used without giving any reason and, thus, have been available to shape the racial makeup of a jury, especially in interracial cases.

But the practice has been in some doubt over the past six years, since the Supreme Court began a process of dismantling the use of peremptory challenges that were suspected of being used on the basis of race alone.

The court began in 1986, by forbidding prosecutors to use such automatic strikes based solely on race. If it appeared that a prosecutor had used strikes on the basis of race, the prosecutor would have to disprove that by offering non-racial reasons -- or else scuttle the case.

Last year, the court said that prosecutors' use of race could be challenged by the accused on trial for a crime, whatever the race of the accused. Thus, whites could challenge the exclusion of blacks, or vice versa.

Last year, in a separate ruling, the court declared that both sides in a civil trial were forbidden to use their strikes solely on the basis of race. That left unsettled only the issue of whether the defense side in a criminal case would be left free to use race as the factor for striking jurors.

Yesterday, the court said no. The harm that comes from such strikes, the court said in an opinion by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, is to the jurors excluded and to the community as a whole.

"The need for public confidence is especially high in cases involving race-related crimes," he wrote. "In such cases, emotions in the affected community will inevitably be heated and volatile."

Justice Blackmun noted "the public outrage and riots" that occurred in Miami a few years ago when blacks were blocked from serving on a jury in the trial of whites "accused of racial beating." He did not identify that particular case.

The court opinion made no mention of the recent riots in Los

Angeles, which began after a jury on which no blacks served found four white police officers not guilty of most of the charges of violently beating a black motorist, Rodney King.

Justice Blackmun's opinion flatly rejected the notion that the accused in a criminal trial should be allowed to shape the jury according to race to try to get a more sympathetic jury.

"It is an affront to justice to argue that a fair trial includes the right to discriminate against a group of citizens based upon their race," he wrote.

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