As the Howard Beach jury selection continues here, there are rumblings in black communities that the wheels of justice no longer work as well as they did in the heady civil rights days. Advocates cite several New York headline cases in recent years that have spawned distrust in the system - the acquittal of Bernhard Goetz of all but gun possession in his subway shooting of four young black men; the clearing of a police officer who shot and killed Eleanor Bumpurs, a black senior citizen, during an eviction; or the case of black graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who died while in custody of the transit police after being arrested at a subway station. None of the officers faced department charges in connection with his death, except one on perjury charges.
Many legal experts have long suggested that the race of both the defendent and the victim bear heavily on verdicts and sentences in criminal cases, claiming that the weight of the law comes down heavier on minorities. Others say statistical evidence does not prove that.
But people's perception of the court system as a good ally for redress in both civil and criminal bias, or hate violence cases, is changing, advocates say. They applauded the judge in the Howard Beach case, when he recently ruled that the defense was seeking to exclude blacks from the jury through ``peremptory challenges.'' (Peremptory challenges are dismissing a prospective juror without explaining the reason.) The fact that the judge had to make this ruling added to the skepticism that blacks feel toward the system.
``At the local level there is a sense of despair and distrust,'' says the the Rev. Benjamin Chavis of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice. ``But the courts still have a role to play for equal justice under the law. We can't get there by osmosis.''
The Howard Beach case will allow citizens to vent feelings on race relations and the criminal justice system, says W. Heywood Burns, dean of the City University of New York law school and president of the National Lawyers Guild. Not all the discussions will be productive, he adds, but it will provide an occasion for those who want a reasoned discussion of the issue.
``But there are too many Howard Beaches,'' says Mr. Burns. ``In many quarters, [people are] more hesitant in putting their faith and trust in the courts.''
``At one point people felt the judicial system was the point of redress,'' says Lynora Williams of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta. Now they are thinking two or three times before using the courts, she says. ``There is definitely a perception that the courts aren't as responsive to civil and human rights causes.''
There have been important victories recently, Ms. Williams says. But since the landmark Bakke decision on affirmative action, there has been a reluctance from the highest court to award redress through this method. There has not been much successful litigation concerning racially motivated violence, and only mixed results in pursuing ``hate'' groups through the court, she says. Williams says she sees a chilling effect, a sense that achieving social justice is more illusive.
``Society is more tolerant of racism, and that is reflected in the courts,'' says Williams.
``I don't think the perception [of the courts] has changed that much,'' says Julius Chambers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. ``There are apprehensions [that Reagan appointees to the bench] may cause the courts to change.''
Unless the courts actually begin to reject efforts to obtain relief through the courts, they are still seen as having a major role in redress and in political change. In many states, Mr. Chambers notes, the Voting Rights Act has enabled voters to bring more minorities and women onto state courts. There are more black district attorneys being appointed, he says.
``The real problem here is to find and convict those who perpetrate such crimes,'' says Chambers. He says a close eye must be kept on how police do investigations, how the evidence is presented in trial, how juries are selected.
Indeed, as many people perceive a conservative trend in federal courts, there has been more attention paid to state courts and laws. Sometimes it is at the local level. Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman has been applauded by many for programs such as a special unit to investigate police crimes, and an alternative sentencing program for less serious bias crimes.
At the state level, there have been proposals to appoint special prosecutors in every instance of racial or ethnic crime, as well as a comprehensive package that would mean heavier penalties for crimes involving hate violence. Such a bill did not pass in New York, and few states have legislation imposing penalties for hate violence directed against minorities.
California has passed such a bill, which is on the desk of Gov. George Deukmejian, waiting to be vetoed or signed. Originally proposed by Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp, the bill adds criminal penalties to deter and punish such violence, and strengthens civil relief for victims of such crimes.