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Court to Hear Case Alleging Blacks Selectively Tried in Cocaine Cases

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would hear a case involving allegations that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles selectively pursued and charged blacks in crack cocaine cases.

The dispute, the first at the high court relating to selective racial prosecution in nearly 10 years, comes as the question of whether blacks and whites are treated the same in the criminal justice system has become a focus of national attention.

The issue was highlighted by the recently completed O.J. Simpson trial, in which the Los Angeles Police Department was accused of racism. And Monday, President Clinton signed legislation rejecting recommendations by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce stiff federal penalties for offenses involving crack in order to make them more equal to lesser penalties for offenses involving powder cocaine.

In the case of United States vs. Armstrong taken by the Supreme Court, five black men indicted on crack cocaine distribution and firearms charges in 1992 eventually had their cases dismissed after the Justice Department declined to present documents countering their claim of discrimination.

The defendants had shown that all 24 crack cases handled by the Los Angeles federal public defender's office in 1991 involved blacks. The men, Christopher Lee Armstrong, Robert Rozelle, Aaron Hampton, Freddie Mack and Shelton Auntwan Martin, claimed that prosecutors targeted them because they are black.

The Justice Department argued that it was not required to disclose documents to counter that allegation, saying that the identification of 24 black crack defendants showed "only that blacks have been prosecuted, not that others of different races and similarly situated have not." No evidence was introduced by the defense showing that similarly situated white people had not been prosecuted.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said the defendants' statistics were enough to order such disclosure, called "discovery." She ordered the government to provide a list of all cases from three prior years in which it had charged both crack and firearms offenses.