COLUMBIA -- A black man with dreadlocks should not have been kept off a Florence County jury in a 2004 civil trial, the state's top court said Monday.
The S.C. Supreme Court in a 3-2 vote said a defense lawyer's stated "uneasiness" about the dreadlocks was not a "race-neutral" reason for excluding the prospective juror.
Two other prospective black jurors also were excluded in the civil case involving a car wreck.
A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said people can't be kept off juries for racial reasons.
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"Regardless of their gradual infiltration into mainstream American society, dreadlocks retain their roots as a religious and social symbol of historically black cultures," Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote for the majority in Monday's ruling.
Toal, who is white, was joined by Justice Donald Beatty and substitute justice Michelle Childs, a circuit court judge from Columbia, who are black.
The majority reversed an earlier South Carolina Court of Appeals ruling and ordered a new trial.
"I don't think it should be read as a narrow decision about dreadlocks," said Graham Boyd, interim executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
"It's a decision that says in jury selection, the court and attorneys need to exercise very strict care that there is no discrimination or even an appearance of discrimination."
Pop culture also crept into the case, said Florence lawyer Edward Graham, who represented the plaintiff, when contacted Monday. During oral arguments in May, the high court and the opposing attorney noted "American Idol" finalist Jason Castro, who is white, has dreadlocks, he said.
Graham, who is white, said he argued that dreadlocks are "culturally, socially and historically identified with African Americans."
In using one of his peremptory strikes to exclude the man with dreadlocks, Cheraw attorney C. Anthony Harris, who represented the at-fault driver in the case, told trial judge Brogdon he had "some uneasiness" about the prospective juror, Monday's ruling said.