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PA Judge Overturns Murder Conviction Based on Race

A court's ruling Wednesday will send shockwaves through entire Philadelphia criminal justice community.
PA Judge Overturns Murder Conviction Based on Race
PHILADELPHIA - December 19, 2001 —

Dann Cuellar has the details of Wednesday's court ruling.

A court's ruling Wednesday will send shockwaves through entire Philadelphia criminal justice community.

A judge has overturned the death penalty verdict against a convicted killer, because he says the defendant was a victim of racial discrimination.

This is significant because until, prior to Wednesday's ruling, no Pennsylvania court had ever overturned a death penalty conviction on the basis of racial discrimination in the jury selection process. Further, it could have far-reaching implications on other death penalty cases tried by former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon

The smoking gun was a controversial training tape prepared in the 1980s by then prosecutor Jack McMahon. The tape teaches other prosecutors how to select jury members and which should be avoided at all costs.

Jack McMahon: "In my experience, black women, young black women are very bad. There's antagonism because they're downtrodden on two respects, they got two minorities – they're women and they're black."

Public defender Robert Dunham used that training tape to convince a judge that's exactly what McMahon did in the trial of William Basemore. He was sentenced to death for the December 23, 1986 murder and robbery of 68-year-old George Weiss, a security guard at the Riverfront Dinner Theater. Wednesday Common Pleas Judge David Savitt ordered a new trial saying: "This court is convinced that the trial prosecutor in this case engaged in a pattern of discrimination during jury selection. The record indicates a conscious strategy to exclude African American jurors.

Jack McMahon/former prosecutor: "I don't agree with it, he has the right to make the findings that he did."

But some argue his training tape lends credence to a study by the University of Iowa that found black jurors in Philadelphia were twice as likely to be excluded than other jurors. Further, the practice seems to correlate with the fact that Philadelphia has the highest number of African Americans on death row in the U.S., as Dunham argued in court.

Robert Dunham/public defender: "Your odds of being sentenced to death in Philadelphia increased substantially just because you're black."

It was D.A. Lynne Abraham who made the tape public during her 1997 campaign for DA against Jack McMahon. She is now deciding if she will appeal the ruling adding in a statement: "She rejects the contents of the tape as volative of the law and contrary to the policy of her office. McMahon wonders why then is she considering an appeal.

Jack McMahon/former prosecutor: "It seems a bit hypocritical to say this was ill advised and wrong and then have her lawyers that are in her office defending my position from top to bottom."

At least 3 other death penalty cases tried by McMahon are currently being reviewed on the same argument of that tape. Caught in the middle of all this are the victims' families. Brian Weiss, the son of the murdered security guard, told Action News Wednesday night that he is distraught and personally disappointed with the court's findings.



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