Originally created 01/26/99

Jury selection in murder case raises questions



ATLANTA -- Keeping Republicans off a jury is OK, but blocking blacks is wrong, according to arguments Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court.

Augusta attorney Rick Ward asked the seven-member court to grant a new trial for Willie Palmer and overturn his double-murder conviction because he said prosecutors illegally blocked blacks from the jury.

Mr. Palmer, 46, of Gough, Ga., was convicted in 1997 by a jury of eight blacks and four whites for killing his estranged wife and her 15-year-old daughter.

During the trial, Augusta District Attorney Danny Craig used all his allotted chances to block blacks and none against whites who were prospective jurors.

Mr. Ward told the justices his only proof that Mr. Craig discriminated against blacks was what he called 9,000-to-1 odds that a prosecutor would have race-neutral reasons for blocking that many prospective jurors who were black.

But he added that because courts have found racial discrimination illegal, prosecutors are too savvy to list race explicitly as the reason for blocking particular jury prospects and instead cite other reasons.

When it was his chance, though, Mr. Ward used his chances to block mostly whites and just one black.

"I struck 12 Republicans," he said. "On every death penalty case I've had, I struck Republicans."

He argued that party preference, unlike race or sex, can be changed so Republicans don't need to be protected against discrimination. And Republicans tend to be more conservative so they're harder on defendants.

"It didn't do you much good, apparently," quipped Justice Norman Fletcher.

Mr. Craig told the justices he had spent enough time with each prospective juror to reach an unbiased opinion of how fair he would be.

"It has nothing to do with color," he said. "Jury selection in this case is a little more scientific process than when we go in on a Monday morning to try a case in one day."

Another issue required Mr. Craig to do more explaining.

Attorney Charlotta Norby said an added reason for throwing out Mr. Palmer's conviction was Mr. Craig's use of three instances during the trial that unfairly distracted the jury from the question of whether he killed Brenda Jenkins Palmer and Christine Jenkins. She said testimony about earlier crimes Mr. Palmer committed against people other than the murder victims was out of bounds.

"You have a wonderful case," Justice Fletcher said, but the court could rule against his reliance on the three instances.

Mr. Craig responded by saying testimony on the instances was needed to show what Mr. Palmer, who has an IQ of 61-72, was thinking before and during the murder.

The Supreme Court seldom throws out cases on the basis Ms. Norby suggested, as Justice Fletcher pointed out. It will hand down a decision in this case within three months.

Walter Jones is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.