In a decision aimed at ensuring fair trials for minorities, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a judge must ask prospective jurors about their racial bias if a minority defendant requests such a question during jury selection.
The ruling by Judge Robert M. Bell reverses the jury conviction of a Baltimore man on drug charges and extends a requirement that judges ask prospective jurors if their backgrounds prevent them from rendering a fair verdict.
Maryland's highest court ruled in 1985 that judges must question jurors specifically about racial bias, but said they only need ask in cases where the defendant was a minority being tried for a violent crime and the victim was of a different race.
But the court said yesterday that as long as the defendant is of a different race than most of the jury pool, he is entitled to ask prospective jurors about bias, no matter what the offense or victim's race.
"A prospective juror who is prejudiced or biased based on race would be unable objectively to decide a matter in which a person of that race is a party," Judge Bell wrote in a 12-page decision.
The ruling was praised as a victory for the legal rights of minority criminal defendants. "For many defendants out there, this is a very important question," said Devy Patterson-Russell, the assistant public defender who handled the appeal.
Ms. Patterson-Russell said the appeal was aimed at helping select fair juries for black defendants charged with drug offenses, who often face uphill battles at trial because of stereotypes about black males.
"The reality of race relations and the focus on black males as the cause of the rampant drug problem in the '90s establishes, at the very least, a reasonable possibility that racial prejudice may infect a black defendant's trial," she wrote in a brief to the court.
The court's unanimous ruling stemmed from the Nov. 29, 1991, arrest of Andrew Hill, 29, of the 800 block of George St. in Baltimore.
Mr. Hill was arrested about midnight in the 2100 block of Booth Street by a Baltimore police officer, who testified that he stopped his cruiser and approached Mr. Hill because he matched the description of a robbery suspect in the neighborhood, according to court records.
Mr. Hill was charged with possession of cocaine and possession with intent to distribute after Officer Barron Burch found he was carrying a small box containing 14 vials of cocaine, the record shows.
When the case came to trial, Baltimore Circuit Judge David Ross refused a request by Mr. Hill's lawyer to ask prospective jurors if they would be prejudiced against him because he was black and the state's sole witness, Officer Burch, was white.
The court ordered a new trial for Mr. Hill, who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison.