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Supreme Court considers race bias in jury selection

Black convict appealed over all-white panel

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court debated yesterday what standard should be used to show racial bias in jury selection, taking up a California case in which a black man appealed his murder conviction because prosecutors selected an all-white jury.

Jay Shawn Johnson of San Pablo, Calif., was found guilty in 1998 of killing his girlfriend's 18-month baby. He argued the homicide was accidental.

Prosecutors excused three potential jurors who were black, using ''peremptory challenges" that allow attorneys for both sides to dismiss a certain number of jurors without giving a reason.

Johnson appealed, arguing that the dismissals were unconstitutional under a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that prohibited racially discriminatory uses of peremptory challenges.

The California Supreme Court ruled against Johnson, finding he hadn't shown that ''it is more likely than not" that prosecutors discriminated in selecting jurors.

Johnson's attorney, Stephen Bedrick of Oakland, Calif., told justices yesterday that California's standard was too high.

Under federal law, attorneys should have to justify peremptory challenges when there can be ''an inference" of discrimination, Bedrick said.

''These facts indisputably present an inference of discrimination," he said.

Attorney Seth Schalit, representing California, told justices that the state's standard for peremptory challenges is appropriate.

''California's system makes a proper balance between equal protection interests and states and parties' interests in using a venerable tool to select a fair and impartial jury," Schalit said.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said it sounded as if Schalit was asking for a different standard than federal law sketches out, ''and it's a tougher standard than normal."

Several justices also questioned why, given that racial discrimination has been prohibited in peremptory challenges since 1986, having to explain away an inference of discrimination presents any great burden.

''What is such a big deal about adopting a very low standard?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked Schalit.

''You cannot make peremptory challenges for any reason any more. . . . Once those days are gone, what's the big deal about" requiring attorneys to explain their peremptory challenges to judges, Scalia said.

Yesterday was the second time justices listened to arguments in Johnson v. California. They also heard the case in March 2004 before dismissing it because lower courts had not finished deciding some issues. After lower courts resolved those issues, affirming Johnson's conviction, the Supreme Court took the case again.

Also yesterday, the Supreme Court said it will consider whether police may search a home when one occupant consents but another does not.

Justices will review the case of Scott Fitz Randolph of Georgia, who was charged with cocaine possession in 2001 following a domestic disturbance call by his wife. When police arrived, she complained that Randolph had taken away their son and that he had been using cocaine.

A few minutes later, Randolph returned home and told police the son was at a neighbor's home. Officers then asked to search the couple's home, but Randolph objected. His wife, however, consented and led police to a drug stash inside the couple's bedroom.

At issue is whether the search violated the Fourth Amendment ban against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Georgia Supreme Court said yes, reasoning that police must defer to an objecting occupant's position when two people have equal use and control of the home.

Other lower courts, however, are divided on the issue. Many hold that a consent from one occupant is sufficient, since cohabitants assume the risk when living together that ''one of their number might permit the common area to be searched."

In other action, the court said it will consider whether police went too far in questioning when officers taunted a murder suspect with the death penalty after he invoked his right to an attorney.

A Maryland state court dismissed the case of Leeander J. Blake, saying his Miranda rights were violated.

The court also agreed yesterday to consider whether a church in New Mexico can continue using hallucinogenic tea in its religious services.

At issue is whether use of the tea, which contains a drug banned under the federal Controlled Substances Act, is protected under freedom of religion laws.

The Bush administration contends the tea is illegal and use of it potentially dangerous for church members.

Justices will review a lower court ruling that allowed the Brazil-based church -- O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal -- to import and use the hoasca tea while the case was appealed.

The church, which has about 140 members in the United States and 8,000 worldwide, says the herbal brew is a central sacrament in its religious practice, which is a blend of Christian beliefs and traditions rooted in the Amazon basin.

The Denver-based US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, ruling that the church had shown a ''substantial likelihood of success" in winning religious exemption, rejected the government's request to temporarily ban use of the drug at the church, whose US operations are based in Santa Fe.

In its Supreme Court appeal of that order, the Bush administration argued it has a ''compelling interest" to prevent an illegal market for the drug. The government also said the drug in the tea -- dimethyltryptamine -- is banned by an international treaty that classifies it as a substance banned for uses other than research.

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