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Court Backs White Defendant Rights

April 21, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ White defendants can challenge indictments against them based on alleged discrimination against blacks in the selection of grand jury members, the Supreme Court said Tuesday.

The unanimous ruling allows a Louisiana man convicted of murder to try to have the charges thrown out on his claim that blacks were prevented from serving as grand jury foreman.

Murder defendant Terry Campbell, ``like any other white defendant, has standing to raise an equal-protection challenge to discrimination against black persons in the selection of his grand jury,″ Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.

``Regardless of his or her skin color, the accused suffers a significant injury in fact when the composition of the grand jury is tainted by racial discrimination,″ Kennedy said.

In Louisiana, grand jury foremen are chosen by the judge, separate from the random selection of the other 11 grand jurors, and therefore the choice of foreman affects the makeup of the panel.

Four other states _ Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia _ use similar procedures. In federal courts and other states that use grand juries, the foreman is chosen from the grand jury panel.

In other action:

_The court gave the Internal Revenue Service a multimillion-dollar victory in a dispute over federal taxes owed by property and casualty insurance companies for 1987. The ruling upheld the tax agency’s method of calculating the insurance companies’ tax liability.

_The justices barred some homeowners facing foreclosure from trying to cancel the mortgage loan on grounds the lender violated a federal truth-in-lending law.

_Justice Clarence Thomas refused to block Whitewater witness David Hale’s trial in an Arkansas state court on charges of lying to insurance regulators. Hale contended a plea agreement and immunity granted by federal Whitewater investigators should protect him against prosecution in the state case.

The ruling in the Louisiana case follows a series of decisions since 1986 in which the Supreme Court barred lawyers from excluding prospective trial jurors because of their race or gender. In 1991, the court said criminal defendants can object to race-based exclusions of trial jurors even if the defendant and the excluded jurors are not of the same race.

However, the Supreme Court also ruled in 1984 that a defendant could not challenge the selection of a foreman from the members of a federal grand jury because the selection did not change the panel’s composition.

Campbell was convicted of murder in the January 1992 shooting death of James L. Sharp and sentenced to life without parole. He challenged his indictment, saying blacks were systematically kept from serving as grand jury foreman in Evangeline Parish.

The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Campbell’s murder conviction, saying that because he was white, he had no legal standing to challenge the exclusion of blacks as grand jury foremen. The court also said the foreman’s role appeared to be mainly ``ministerial,″ and therefore, the selection would have little effect on a defendant’s rights.

Kennedy wrote that the Louisiana court was wrong because the selection of a foreman in that state affected the grand jury’s makeup.

His opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented from the part of the court’s ruling that said white defendants could assert the right of blacks to be free from bias in choosing grand juries.

``I fail to understand how the rights of blacks excluded from jury service can be vindicated by letting a white murderer go free,″ Thomas wrote for the two. But Thomas and Scalia agreed Campbell could challenge the indictment on grounds his due-process rights were violated.

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