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Legal system accused of racial bias

A state panel investigating bias in Florida's judicial system held itsfirst public hearings Thursday and got an earful about perceived problems in Broward and Dade counties.

At the Broward County hearing, the Florida Supreme Court's Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission heard about inequities in arrest procedures, in the setting of bail for criminal defendants, in the treatment of minority law students and in the use of grand juries.

"This certainly gives us something to look at," said Frank Scruggs, a prominent Miami lawyer who is chairman of the 27-member commission. Scruggs said the commission is supposed to recommend ways to correct "any actual or perceived bias" in Florida's legal system in time for the 1991 legislative session.

The panel, which includes a Florida Supreme Court justice, several state lawmakers and numerous lawyers, will be holding public hearings across the state during the next several months. In Broward, more than a dozen speakers voiced their opinions.

B. J. Cummins, the president of the Broward County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the panel he believes blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be arrested for minor crimes such as "prowling" or "loitering."

"Police assume they must be up to no good," Cummins said. "They tell them to move along in their own neighborhoods. If they refuse, they get arrested."

And once arrested, Cummins said, blacks and Hispanic defendants are much more likely to have to post bail before being released than whites charged with the same crime.

"After spending time in jail because they can't make bail, many (minority defendants) are willing to plead guilty just to get out," Cummins said.

Marcia Evans McCullough, president of the Black Law Students Association at Fort Lauderdale's Nova Law School, complained of "subtle racial discrimination" in the treatment of black law students.

She said Nova Law School is very willing to accept minority students but less willing to help them overcome educational deficiencies, especially in writing skills.

Roger Abrams, dean of the Nova Law School, was not present when McCullough made her remarks. Later, however, he said that many minority students are accepted into his school with "modest academic credentials." He denied, however, that they are "left to sink or swim."

Perry Thurston, a lawyer in the Broward County Public Defender's Office, complained about the use of secret grand juries in cases involving police shootings.

He compared the handling of a case involving the recent shooting of a black man by an officer in Broward County to the handling of the police shooting in neighboring Dade County that ignited last year's riots in Overtown and Liberty City.

In the Broward County case, a white Fort Lauderdale police officer shot an unarmed black man in a predominantly black neighborhood known for drug sales. The officer claimed the gun went off by accident, and no criminal charges were filed against him after a grand jury reviewed the evidence in a secret hearing.

In the Dade County case, Miami Police Officer William Lozano claimed he fired in self-defense when he shot and killed an unarmed black motorcyclist. Dade prosecutors, however, bypassed the grand jury and charged Lozano with manslaughter. He was convicted last month after a lengthy trial and sentenced to seven years in prison.

"In cases involving police shootings," Thurston said, "a more open procedure is preferable (to) going through a grand jury."