New trial ordered in 1986 slaying A Phila. judge ruled that a prosecutor had engaged in race discrimination in the trial of William Basemore.

Posted: December 20, 2001

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge yesterday ordered a new trial for a black death-row inmate, saying the prosecutor engaged in race discrimination during jury selection for the inmate's 1988 trial.

The prosecutor was Jack McMahon, now a well-known defense attorney, in the case of William Basemore, who was convicted of killing a security guard during a 1986 burglary at the Riverfront Restaurant and Dinner Theater.

Judge David N. Savitt yesterday said McMahon "manifested a conscious pattern of discrimination and denied defendant equal protection under the law."

Savitt's decision came in response to an order last year by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review whether McMahon improperly kept African Americans off the jury in the Basemore case. McMahon used 19 peremptory challenges to eliminate potential jurors, and all were black.

The high court also cited a 1987 videotape in which McMahon told new prosecutors how to keep African Americans, "smart" people and others off juries.

On the tape, McMahon told prosecutors to avoid picking young black women for juries because, he said, they tended to show "antagonism" toward law-enforcement authorities. He said older black men were preferable. He advised prosecutors against picking educated black people or educated people of any race. "You don't want smart people," he said.

The tape became an issue during the 1997 district attorney's race in Philadelphia. District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham released the videotape. McMahon was her Republican opponent. McMahon responded by saying that he favored racially diverse juries and that he did not advocate any form of racial discrimination.

McMahon could not be reached for comment last night.

In a written statement, the District Attorney's Office said it was "reviewing Judge Savitt's opinion to determine whether an appeal is appropriate. The videotape mentioned in the opinion was made prior to the time that Lynne Abraham became district attorney and has never been used for training by her office. She rejects the contents of the tape as violative of the law and contrary to the policy of her office."

Basemore was convicted of killing George L. Weiss, 68, a decorated Marine veteran, with a makeshift spear and a knife during a burglary at the theater. Police traced an acetylene torch found at the scene, along with the spear, to Basemore.

The state high court, in ordering the review last year, said that the evidence of Basemore's guilt was "overwhelming" but that the appeal involves "the fundamental constitutional right to judgment by a jury of one's peers."

The victim's son, Brian Weiss, 52, yesterday said the judge's order was "almost a slap in the face."

"I believe Mr. Basemore got a fair trial and the evidence is conclusive as to his guilt," he said.

He noted that the judge's order had stirred bad memories because it came just days before the anniversary of his father's death on Dec. 23, 1986.

Though Basemore won a new trial in the Weiss murder, he will remain in custody awaiting trial in another slaying.

Last month, Basemore was charged with killing Richard Donahue, a 36-year-old English teacher who was stabbed 41 times in his Logan home in 1985.

Donahue lay dead for more than a day before his body was found by his 14-year-old niece.

Detectives reviewing unsolved murders used computer technology to match a fingerprint found on a wine glass in Donahue's kitchen to Basemore.

Forensic analysts matched Basemore's DNA to blood that had been collected in Donahue's home and saved since 1985.

Robert Moran's e-mail address is bmoran@phillynews.com.

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