Florida Court Looks Again At Racist Jury Comments

JURORS cannot make racial remarks when deliberating behind closed doors. If they do, it could be grounds for ordering a new trial.

That appears to be the message from the Florida Supreme Court. In a recent landmark decision, it ruled that a black couple should be granted a new trial if it is determined that members of an all-white jury made racist comments and jokes when deciding the case.

``[W]hen appeals to racial bias are made openly among jurors, they constitute overt acts of misconduct,'' the court said. This precedent ``may not keep improper bias from being a silent factor with a particular juror,'' wrote Justice Harry Anstead, ``but, hopefully, it will act as a check on such bias and prevent the bias from being expressed so as to overtly influence others.''

The case attracted national attention because it pitted two ironclad jurisprudence principles: the right to a trial free of racial prejudice and a 200-year precedence of not questioning the thought processes of jurors.

In 1989, the car of Derrick Powell and his wife Eugenia was broadsided in Palm Bay, Fla., by an underinsured motorist. The couple, Jamaican-born US citizens, sued their insurance company, All State Insurance Group, for $235,000 in underinsured-motorist coverage benefits. But they were awarded only $29,320 by the six-member jury. One of the jurors, Karen Dowding, told the Powells' lawyer and the trial judge that members of the jury had made racial jokes, including comparing the Powells with chimpanzees, throughout the proceedings and during deliberations.

Ms. Dowding said the jurors had reduced the amount of damage awarded because of the Powells' skin color. The Powells requested a new trial or an interview with all the jurors. The judge denied both requests. After an appeal to a higher court failed, the Powells tried the Florida Supreme Court. It ordered the trial court to conduct hearings into whether jurors made racial comments. If it finds they did, a new trial should be held, the court said.

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