Racism in Jury Room Is Brought to Trial In a Florida Case

AN a jury, in the privacy of the jury room, liken black litigates to ``chimpanzees?''

An all-white jury's racist remarks about a black couple are the basis of a landmark case now before the Florida Supreme Court, a suit that could challenge the age-old sanctity of jury-room deliberations.

The case is attracting national attention because it pits two ironclad jurisprudence principles: The right to a trial free of racial prejudice and a 200-year precedent of not questioning how juries arrive at their decisions.

``For the first time the Florida Supreme Court is going to decide whether or not bigotry inherent in a jury room denies someone a right to a fair trial,'' says Richard Ovelman, a lawyer trying the case for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who presented oral arguments before the court last month.

In January 1989, Derrick Powell, an electrician, and his wife Eugena, were pulling out of the driveway of their second home in Palm Bay, Fla., when their Lincoln Town Car was broadsided by an underinsured motorist.

The couple sued their insurance company, Allstate Insurance Group of Northbrook, Ill., for underinsured motorist coverage benefits. The couple, Jamaican-born United States citizens, asked for $235,000 to cover Mr. Powell's injuries, lost wages, pain and suffering, as well as for Mrs. Powell's loss of her husband's companionship.

The case went to trial in May 1992 and a jury awarded Mr. Powell $29,320 and gave Mrs. Powell nothing. After legal and other fees were deducted, the Powells were left with $10,524.

The day following the verdict, one of the six jurors, Karen Dowding, called the Powell's lawyer, Robert Gray. She related to Mr. Gray several ethnic jokes and comments made both before and during the deliberations.

Ms. Dowding said that during a lunch break one juror likened the Powells to chimpanzees in a natural history book that Dowding had brought to the jury room. Another juror described how she worked at a computer company where the turnover of black employees was higher than white-employee turnover. ``Blacks didn't work for us as well,'' the juror said. Yet another juror speculated that the Powells' children were drug dealers.

Dowding told Gray she considered the jurors biased, and they had reduced the amount of the damage awarded because of the Powells' skin color. She repeated her concerns to the presiding trial judge with the attorney for Allstate present. The Powell's lawyer requested a new trial and interview with all the other jurors. The judge denied both requests.

Attorney Gray then appealed the case to Fifth District Court of Appeals in Daytona Beach, Fla. The court ruled that a jury interview or retrial would be inappropriate. The court said it ``deplores the crass and intolerable comments'' attributed to the jurors but had to respect the precedence of not questioning jurors about how they arrived at a decision. Mr. Ovelman acknowledges that ``people are afraid that once government starts intruding into the jury room even for laudable purposes, the ability of the jury to serve as a check on the state will be eroded.''

But he adds: ``When we are talking about racial prejudice and racial bigotry, then the jury isn't functioning as a proper check. The jury itself becomes a bad actor.''

If the Florida Supreme Court decides this spring in favor of a retrial for the Powells, lawyers say, it would set a precedent that would require clear rules governing its use. If not, the ruling could open the door to losing litigants to employ the bigotry argument whenever jurors are of another race.

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