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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to review a decades-old practice in California prisons of segregating newly arrived prisoners by race. California routinely assigns black prisoners to bunk only with other black prisoners for three months or more, a practice prison officials say helps keep prisoners safe from racial violence. A black prison inmate challenged the practice as a violation of his constitutional right to equal treatment and argued it flouted previous Supreme Court rulings striking down segregation in other areas. “Intentional state racial segregation has been outlawed in this country for over half a century,” lawyers for Garrison S. Johnson argued in asking the Supreme Court to hear his appeal. The practice dates back more than 25 years, Johnson said. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer countered that the segregation is temporary and applies only to the two-person cells in which inmates are housed when they first enter the prison system or when they are transferred from one prison to another. The rest of the prison system is not segregated, and inmates are often allowed to eventually choose their cellmates without regard to race, the state said. “The confined nature of the cells makes them potentially more dangerous than the other areas of the prison,” Lockyer wrote in a court filing. Racial violence is high outside prison cells, Lockyer said. “Administrators are concerned they would not be able to protect inmates who are confined in their cells, if they did not consider race as a factor,” he said. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Johnson last year. The high court will hear the case next fall, with a ruling expected by July 2005. Additionally, the Supreme Court said yesterday that it will consider effectiveness standards for attorneys, focusing on a Florida death-row case involving a defendant who questioned his lawyer’s strategy of admitting his guilt. A lower court has ordered a new trial for Joe Elton Nixon, who was convicted in the 1984 murder of a woman he met at a mall. Prosecutors said he tied the woman to trees with jumper cables and set her on fire. At issue in the case is the decision of Nixon’s attorney to tell jurors the woman died a “horrible, horrible” death and that his client was guilty in hopes his candor would persuade the jury to spare Nixon’s life. The strategy did not work, and Nixon was sentenced to death for the murder of Jeanne Bickner, a 38-year-old state worker. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the lawyer did not effectively represent Nixon because Nixon did not explicitly agree to the strategy. In its appeal, the state said that Florida justices were wrong to rule that “consultation and acquiescence was not enough.” “The Florida Supreme Court failed to give any deference to trial counsel’s ‘strategic choices’ or to his evaluation of the risks of contesting guilt when the evidence of guilt was overwhelming,” state lawyers told justices in a filing. Nixon had a long criminal record, beginning when he was convicted of arson at age 10. He had agreed to plead guilty in Bickner’s murder in exchange for a life sentence, but the prosecutor refused, according to court records. So his lawyer told jurors that there was no doubt of his guilt, but that the real question was whether he deserved to die. The attorney said that he told Nixon of his plans and that Nixon did not object. Nixon did not attend his own trial. He stripped off his clothes and refused to enter the courtroom. The judge held a hearing in a cell to make sure Nixon was waiving his right to attend the trial. Nixon, wearing only underwear, told the judge that he wanted another attorney and that he would disrupt the trial. The case will be argued before the Supreme Court in the fall. The case is Florida v. Nixon, 03-931.

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