Pittsburgh Courts Seeking to Increase Blacks on Juries

Article excerpt

Byline: Frank J. Murray, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Pittsburgh court officials announced dramatic steps yesterday to increase the number of blacks on juries just six days after a trial judge put a murder trial on hold until 10 percent of the pool for that case is black.

Allegheny County Court Administrator Raymond L. Billotte said 100,000 prospective jurors will be asked to voluntarily identify their race, a second questionnaire will be sent certified mail to those who do return the form, and jury duty no-shows will risk contempt-of-court charges.

"It may be impossible to get 10 percent," said Assistant Public Defender Christopher A. Patarini, who conceded in a telephone interview that he expects to use the trial delay produced by his own request as grounds for dismissal of the charges if the state is unable to meet the demand.

"For years people have been complaining about the absence of blacks. At least I did something about it. I went in and objected," said Mr. Patarini. His victory came after he repeatedly raised the issue and was turned down by several judges in every relevant case over the past two years.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. said he will not appeal the Common Pleas Court Judge Lester A. Nauhaus' decision, though he said there was no evidence that blacks were systematically denied seats in the jury box.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said "systematic exclusion" of a population segment that prevents a "fair cross-section" violates the Sixth Amendment. The court has not ruled on circumstances such as those in Allegheny County.

In 1961, the court said Florida could make jury service voluntary for women, but that was overruled in a series of decisions including the explicit 1979 Duren v. Missouri ruling, which held a similar law violated the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

Allegheny Jury Commissioner Jean Milko said the selection system is colorblind by law, but that changes were in the works four months before Judge Nauhaus brought the matter to a head. She agreed yesterday with Mr. Patarini that the task may prove impossible.

"What they're seeking is something we've never had and I don't know how long it will take to get to have, or if we'll ever get it," Miss Milko said in an interview. "People can't be made to answer the race question; you can't demand it."

But Judge Nauhaus did demand it ordering that the pool from which 12 jurors for the Phillips trial match county demographics. …