Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that attorneys must be allowed to question prospective jurors about any racial biases they may hold against their client, regardless of the defendant's race or whether the crime has any racial overtones.

The court's unanimous ruling, which overturned the 1998 rape and child abuse conviction of a Hispanic man in Montgomery County, means that, for the first time, Maryland jurors can be questioned about their racial prejudices in any criminal case.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruling goes further in assuring state defendants the right to question jurors' racial biases than the U.S. Supreme Court has nationally. According to the state court's written opinion, the Supreme Court has held that such questions are necessary only when "racial issues are inextricably tied up in the trial."

Before yesterday's ruling, Maryland law required judges to ask potential jurors about their racial biases only in cases with "special circumstances," such as when the defendant is of a different race than the victim or a prime witness.

But Maryland's high court rejected that reasoning, ruling that it is a juror's personal biases, rather than the circumstances of the crime, that could determine whether a defendant gets a fair trial.

Legal experts said Maryland's high court is embracing the belief that jurors can be prejudiced against a defendant's skin color regardless of the race of the victim or the facts of the case.

The racial rifts that developed over the acquittals of O.J. Simpson and the white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King showed that "we'd be absolutely naive to think that we as a society--and that's where jurors come from--can be totally race-neutral," said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law school professor who teaches constitutional criminal procedure.

The ruling "shows that the Court of Appeals feels very strongly about racial bias or any bias directed at ethnicity," said Gary Bair, chief of the criminal appeals division for the Maryland attorney general's office, which fought to uphold the rape and child abuse conviction. "They're making a strong statement against [racial and ethnic bias] and saying that it literally could be in any case."

The appeals court ordered a new trial for Jorge Hernandez, 25, after determining that Montgomery Circuit Court Judge D. Warren Donohue erred in declining to ask the members of the jury pool whether they had any racial biases against Hernandez, a Salvadoran immigrant who used a Spanish interpreter during the trial.

A Montgomery jury convicted Hernandez in February 1998 of second-degree rape and child abuse, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hernandez was accused of having sexual intercourse with a 9-year-old girl, who like Hernandez is Hispanic.

The high court ruled that the judge did not screen the jury pool sufficiently for racial bias when he asked whether anyone had "any bias or prejudice either for or against the defendant."

In weeding out potentially biased jurors in the voir dire phase of jury selection, Donohue declined to ask jurors, as Hernandez's attorney requested, whether anyone had prejudices based on "race, color, religion, sexual orientation, appearance or sex."

Hernandez's attorney could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"Any defendant of whatever race is entitled to have the trial court" ask jurors questions "specifically directed at uncovering racial bias," Associate Justice Lawrence F. Rodowsky wrote in the court's 30-page opinion.

Even though being Hispanic is a matter of ethnicity and not race, the court ruled, "Racial bias can be directed at an accused based on the race to which a prospective juror subjectively assigns the accused."

Racial bias, the court said, is not limited to cases in which the accused is a member of a "cognizable minority group."

In various rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland's appeals courts have addressed what role racial prejudice may play in the minds of jurors, who are instructed to decide guilt or innocence solely on the evidence.

In most of the cases where the courts overturned convictions because race-based questioning of jurors was not allowed, the defendant was black and the victim was white, according to the court's written opinion.

But Warnken, who said he hadn't read the court's decision, said the state justices seem to appreciate that "race is germane in the United States, and race is really germane in the criminal justice system."

Although prospective jurors are entrusted to admit whether they have any racial biases, Warnken said, they are more likely to seriously ponder the question if they are asked specifically about race than if they are asked simply about any general biases.

Staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.