On May 23, 2016 the United States Supreme Court ruled that Georgia prosecutors in Georgia violated the Constitution by using race as a determining factor during jury selection.
In a 7-1 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the Court determined prosecutors made a concerted effort to exclude qualified African Americans from serving on the jury in the 1987 capital murder case, Foster v. Chatman, No. 14-8349.
In 1987 Foster was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court has reversed his conviction and remanded it to the lower court. Foster may motion for a new trial.
Summary of the Case
On August 28, 1986 elderly widow, Madge White, was found murdered in her Roma, Georgia home. Police discovered White had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death. Her home had also been burglarized.
A month after White’s murder Timothy Tyrone Foster was arrested after live-in companion turned him in. Foster was interrogated and confessed to the crime. Stolen property from White’s home was found at Foster’s home and the homes of his two sisters.
A jury convicted Foster of capital murder and burglary, and sentenced him to death. In 1988 Foster appealed his murder conviction to the Supreme Court of Georgia. Georgia’s highest court affirmed his conviction.
History of Foster’s Case
During the first trial Foster argued Georgia prosecutors used preemptory challenges to strike all four black prospective jurors qualified to serve on a jury.
Preemptory challenges allow a party to strike qualified prospective jurors without stating a particular reason. Preemptory challenges give parties the freedom to exclude a potential juror which may have hidden bias or may negatively affect the dynamic of the jury.
However, preemptory challenges may not be used to exclude a potential juror based on race. In Batson v. Kentucky, 479 U.S. 79 (1986), the Court ruled exclusion of a qualified, prospective juror on the basis of race alone violated the defendant’s right to equal protection.
The Court in Batson developed a three-prong analysis to adjudicate claims of racial discrimination in the use of preemptory challenges.
- First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a preemptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race;
- Second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question; and
- Third, in light of the parties’ submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.
Through what is known as a Batson claim, Foster asserted prosecutors excluded certain qualified jurors based on race. The trial court and Georgia Supreme Court rejected Foster’s challenge.
Issues with Jury Selection
Following the trial court’s rejection of the Batson claim and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed, Foster renewed his claim in a state habeas proceeding (a post-conviction proceeding during which the defendant raises issues of constitutionality). During the pendency of that proceeding, Foster obtained copies of files the prosecution used during his 1987 trial.
In the prosecution’s files, Foster discovered the following:
- Copies of the jury venire list on which the name of each black prospective juror was highlighted in bright green. The list also contained a legend indicating the bright green highlighting represented “blacks”;
- An affidavit from an investigator comparing black prospective jurors ;
- Notes identifying black prospective jurors as B#1, B#2, and B#3;
- Notes with the letter “N” (for no) next to the names of all black prospective jurors;
- A list titled “Definite NO’s”, which contained six names and included the names of all black prospective jurors;
- A document with notes on the Church of Christ, which included an annotated “No. No Black Church”; and
- Questionnaires of five prospective black jurors, on which each juror’s response indicating his or her race had been circled.
Foster then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and centered his Batson claim on the strikes of two prospective black jurors, Marilyn Garrett and Eddie Hood. As required in the Batson analysis, the prosecution must give race-neutral reasons for striking a qualified prospective juror and the Court must make a determination of whether purposeful discrimination occurred.
The State gave several race-neutral reasons for the exclusion of Garrett and Hood, including the type of employment, religious affiliation, and marital status. For example, Garrett worked with inner city, high-risk teens and Hood was a member of the Church of Christ. Based on the aforementioned facts, both Garrett and Hood would likely not sentence Foster to death. The Court determined Georgia prosecutor’s race-neutral justifications came undone when subjected to scrutiny. The record showed that there were white prospective jurors with similar circumstances and these jurors were not excluded.
However, the most damning evidence was within the prosecutor’s files. When referring to the prosecutor’s files, the Court expressed “the sheer number of references to race in the file is arresting” and the State’s argument that those notes were made to ensure black jurors were properly and indiscriminately considered during jury selection was not credible. 30 years ago, in 1987, the prosecutors were clearly attempting to exclude all African American persons from the jury.
The Court reversed the Georgia Supreme Court order and remanded it for further proceedings consisted with the U.S. Supreme Court opinion. While Foster will not immediately be released and will likely face another capital murder trial, the Supreme Court’s decision this case provides critical clarification regarding what constitutes racial discrimination in jury selection.
John Terrezza of Terrezza Law is an experienced criminal defense and criminal appeals lawyer located in Pensacola, Florida.
Terrezza is admitted to practice in Florida state courts and the following federal courts: the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
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