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After 24 Years, Bias Issue Voids Murder Conviction

January 15, 1986|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, ruling Tuesday in a 24-year-old California murder case, reaffirmed a century-long legal doctrine requiring that a criminal conviction be overturned if members of the defendant's race were purposely excluded from the grand jury that indicted him.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices ordered prosecuting authorities to retry or free Booker T. Hillery Jr., a black former ranch hand convicted of the brutal murder of a white 15-year-old Kings County girl in 1962.

The court dealt a sharp setback to state officials, who had sought an exception to the long-standing rule when there was overwhelming evidence of guilt and the defendant was deemed to have received a fair trial after being indicted.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the majority, cited a series of court precedents back to 1880 that he said required Hillery's conviction to be automatically overturned.

"Intentional discrimination in the selection of grand jurors is a grave constitutional trespass . . . and wholly within the power of the state to prevent," Marshall said. "The only effective remedy for this discrimination (reversal of the conviction) is not disproportionate to the evil that it seeks to deter."

Three justices issued a sharp dissent, saying that any flaws in the selection of grand jurors who indicted Hillery represented "harmless error" and that it was unfair to expect that the state could retry a case in which witnesses have moved or died, evidence has been lost and memories have faded.

"It is difficult to reconcile this result with a rational system of justice," Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Authorities in California expressed disappointment with the decision but said an attempt may be made to retry Hillery, now being held in state prison.

"No one was arguing that discrimination should be permitted," said state Deputy Atty. Gen. William George Prahl. "But the task of putting together a new trial will be regrettably expensive and tragically unnecessary. . . . This kind of decision erodes public confidence in the courts."

Hillery's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Sentenced to Death

The case began when Hillery, then on parole from a previous conviction for rape, was arrested in the sexual assault and stabbing death of Marlene Miller of Hanford. An all-white, 19-member grand jury, appointed by a local judge, brought an indictment against Hillery, and a trial jury later found him guilty. He was sentenced to death.

At the time, 4.7% of Kings County's adult population was black--but no blacks had ever served on the grand jury. Selection procedures for jurors have changed considerably in California and the rest of the country since then in an effort to include more minority members. Blacks began serving on the grand jury in Kings County in 1963.

Over the years, Hillery's death sentence was overturned twice but was reimposed in subsequent penalty retrials. Finally, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment under a ruling by the California Supreme Court.

In 1978, after he had exhausted appeals of his conviction in state courts, Hillery brought a habeas corpus action in federal court. In 1983, a federal district judge in Sacramento overturned his conviction, citing grand jury discrimination, and in 1984 that ruling was affirmed in a 2-1 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Appeals Court Upheld

In its ruling (Vasquez vs. Hillery, 84-836), the Supreme Court upheld the appeals court, refusing to reinstate Hillery's conviction.

The court majority refused to accept the state's contention that any discrimination in grand jury selection did not affect the fairness of his trial. The grand jury has considerable power--particularly in deciding whether to charge a capital crime--and the court could not discount the possibility that discrimination played a role in the bringing of the indictment, the justices said.

The court's dissenters said that, rather than reverse the conviction, the court at most should have remanded the case for further proceedings to see whether retrial was possible after nearly a quarter century.

Unanimous Ruling

In another setback for prosecutors (Wainwright vs. Greenfield, 84-1480), the court ruled unanimously that a defendant's refusal to answer questions asked by arresting officers may not be cited to a trial jury to refute his claim of insanity.

The court rejected an opportunity to weaken its Miranda doctrine, born in its historic but controversial 1966 ruling requiring suspects in police custody to be advised of their rights to silence and counsel before they can be interrogated.

In 1976, the court, citing Miranda, held that a suspect's silence after receiving such warnings could not be offered by the prosecution as evidence of guilt--and the justices held Tuesday that the same rule applied when the defendant is claiming innocence by reason of insanity.

Miranda warnings carry the implicit assurance that "silence will carry no penalty," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court. Any breach of that assurance violates the constitutional right to due process, he said.

Sexual Battery Case

The justices upheld a federal appellate ruling ordering a new trial for David Wayne Greenfield, convicted in Florida on a charge of sexual battery. Greenfield pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and the prosecution argued to the jury that the defendant's calm refusal to talk to police officers conflicted with his claim of insanity.

The prosecutor noted that, on his arrest, Greenfield voluntarily put his arms behind his back, walked to a police car, refused to answer questions, asked for an attorney--and then thanked the officers for his Miranda warning. "This is a supposedly insane person under the throes of an acute condition of schizophrenic paranoia at the time," the prosecutor observed.

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