Race can't keep whites off juries, Md. court rules

November 29, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that whites cannot be excluded from juries because of their race.

The Court of Appeals decision extends to whites the same protections afforded to blacks by the Supreme Court in 1986, when it ruled that race could not be the sole factor in excluding a potential black juror.

The ruling came in the case of Gary Gilchrist, a black defendant on trial in 1992 in Baltimore Circuit Court on cocaine distribution charges. His lawyer offered no substantive reasons for excluding four white jurors when challenged by a prosecutor during selection.

Judge Ellen M. Heller excused the jury panel and a new jury convicted Gilchrist of cocaine distribution charges. Judge Heller sentenced him Sept. 29, 1992, to five years in prison.

In the appeal, Gilchrist's lawyer argued that protections provided by the Supreme Court in Batson vs. Kentucky did not extend to whites because they were intended "to serve merely as a remedial measure to address historical discrimination in jury selection."

But the Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Constitution protects whites as well as blacks from discrimination during selection.

"It is clear that blacks are not the only cognizable [racial] group to which Batson applies," Judge John C. Eldridge wrote in a unanimous, 24-page decision.

The ruling is consistent with appeals court rulings in several states, including Louisiana, Missouri, New York and Florida, the Court of Appeals decision noted.

Assistant Public Defender Nancy M. Cohen, who handled the appeal, said the concurring opinion by Judge Howard S. Chasanow provides important guidance to trial judges about how to handle jury challenges based on race.

"If a judge believes race or gender is even a partial motive, the prospective juror is denied equal protection," Judge Chasanow wrote.

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