Defense request on Arundel jury alarms NAACP official
By By Andrea F. Siegel
May 05, 2005 | 3:00 AM
The president of the NAACP's Anne Arundel County chapter expressed alarm yesterday at a defense lawyer's request in a high-profile trial, saying it could lead to eliminating blacks from a jury that will decide whether a white teenager is to blame for an African-American youth's death in a brawl last summer.
Stating that he was worried about juror bias, the lawyer for the first defendant facing trial in Noah Jamahl Jones' death told a judge yesterday that he wants prospective jurors asked if they belong to groups that pushed for prosecutions in Jones' death. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the largest of those mostly black organizations.
"That concerns me a little bit. What if every African-American that comes in is a member?" Gerald Stansbury, president of the county's NAACP chapter, said after attending the hearing.
Attorney David W. Fischer told an Anne Arundel County judge yesterday that leaders of the groups are among those "taking credit" for the prosecution of his client and others. One of the themes of the defense of Jacob Tyler Fortney, 19, whose trial begins with jury selection today, will be that the prosecution was politically driven, Fischer told the judge.
Jones, 17, died in a melee outside a Pasadena home in July. He was black, as are the friends -- including two who are alleged to have been armed -- with whom he went to the house. The six men charged with manslaughter in Jones' death are white, and the case has become racially tinged.
After initial murder charges were dropped against four suspects, the NAACP was among those seeking charges against whomever the suspects would be, Stansbury said. It also requested a federal civil rights probe, opened last year.
Advocating for charges is a routine activity of many NAACP chapters, and excluding potential jurors based on membership in a chapter that urged charges could have a chilling effect on the organization's involvement in such cases, said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who has studied the organization's role in the post-civil rights era. "I've never heard, before this, of where a defense counsel made that request of the court," he said.
Anne Arundel County Assistant State's Attorney Laura S. Kiessling objected to Fischer's request. Her suggestion -- that potential jurors be asked if they belong to a group that is for or against the charges -- was rejected as not specific enough by Fischer, who said he is deeply concerned that his client receive a fair trial. Fortney has maintained that he is not guilty.
Potential jurors cannot be excluded based on race. Fischer told the judge that his issue was strictly with membership in specific groups. Fischer declined to comment after the hearing; the lawyers have an agreement with the judge not to discuss particulars of the case.
Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck did not rule immediately on Fischer's request, saying he would research the legal questions raised. The judge also said he is leaning toward allowing Robin Jones, the dead teenager's mother, in the courtroom over defense objections. She might be called to testify.
Some of the groups that pressed for prosecution are sending members to watch and report back on the trial.
This is the first time four groups in the local African-American community have organized court monitors, said Carl O. Snowden, a black community leader and aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. "I can't tell you how important it is for there to be a perception that there is a fair trial, no matter what the outcome is," he said.