Prosecutor's training tape could threaten convictions Philadelphia DA tells defense lawyers of apparent race bias of rival


PHILADELPHIA -- In a city that has seen 300 jail sentences overturned recently because of police corruption, hundreds of convicted felons may have just received a surprise gift from the district attorney: the disclosure of a decade-old training film that teaches prosecutors how to exclude young blacks from juries.

On Monday, Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia's district attorney, revealed a videotape made by Jack McMahon, her opponent in the coming election, while he was an assistant prosecutor in 1986.

In the 60-minute video, McMahon advises fellow prosecutors that "young black women are very bad" for juries, and describes how he once feigned illness to get rid of a jury he did not like.

"The blacks from the low-income areas are less likely to convict," McMahon says on the tape, addressing a racially mixed group of assistant district attorneys.

"There's a resentment for law enforcement. There's a resentment for authority. And as a result, you don't want those people on your jury."

Not only does the tape show a candidate who once apparently advised fellow prosecutors to ignore a Supreme Court ban on using race to make jury selections, but Abraham may have opened "a Pandora's box of hundreds, maybe thousands, of tainted convictions which her office will have to sort out," said Jules Epstein, a local defense lawyer.

"There's no telling how many attorneys in that office saw that tape," said Epstein, whose client Thadeus Ford is serving life in prison on a 1983 conviction for shooting a rival drug dealer, a case prosecuted by McMahon.

"If the district attorney is sincere about this, then she has to scrutinize the cases of every single prosecutor who sucked up those lessons," Epstein said.

McMahon was in the district attorney's office in the 1980s.

Abraham, a Democrat, sent copies of the tape to 19 lawyers whose clients had been prosecuted by McMahon, who is running as a Republican for district attorney. Her reason, she said, was fairness.

"The sentiments and practices discussed on that videotape are repugnant to me, and they are in direct contradiction to my beliefs and to the policies of this office," Abraham said in a statement issued Monday.

A cover letter sent to the 19 lawyers who represented the defendants prosecuted for murder by McMahon and then convicted said that an assistant district attorney suddenly remembered the tape after McMahon made remarks to the press "regarding his sensitivity to minorities."

At a news conference yesterday at City Hall, McMahon, now in private practice at McMahon & Gottlieb, accused Abraham of "risking the conviction of 36 murderers, including cop-killers, just for her own political gain."

"This good person and this good candidate will not cower to the transparent trickery of this district attorney, this lifelong politician," he said.

"I have been stopped in the street by many African-Americans who wanted to shake my hand. They know how I've battled racism."

Other than the statement she has issued, Abraham has refused to comment.

The whole idea of the tape, McMahon said, was not to deride minorities, but to explain the "realities" of jury selection.

As an example, he pointed out that he said on the tape, "I don't think you can ever lose with blacks from South Carolina. They are dynamite. They are law and order. They are on the cops' side."

Earlier on the tape, McMahon said case law said the object "is to get a competent, fair and impartial jury. Well, that's ridiculous."

"The only way you're going to do your best," he said, "is to get jurors that are unfair and more likely to convict than anybody else in that room."

Andre Dennis, a civil rights lawyer who has studied racial bias in the Philadelphia court system, said such techniques were precisely what the Supreme Court was trying to eliminate when it ruled in 1986 that lawyers could no longer strike potential jurors because of their race.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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