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High Court Throws Out Death Penalty Case

Although the United States Supreme Court is normally deeply divided, almost all the Justices agreed that racial bias during jury selection invalidated a Georgia man’s murder conviction.

Facts

Foster v. Chatman began in 1986 with the brutal slaying of an elderly woman from Rome. A black man allegedly confessed to the crime. During voir dire jury selection at his trial, Butts County prosecutors highlighted the name of each potential black  juror in green, wrote a “B” next to each entry, and made other handwritten notes, including “no black churches” and “If it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [this one] might be okay.” Prosecutors used peremptory challenges (which are challenges made without any underlying explanation) to remove all four.  Later, during sentencing, the state’s attorney urged the all-white jury to “deter other people out there in the projects.”

Under existing law, it is illegal to remove jurors because of their race. Procedurally, if the defendant alleges racial bias, the prosecutor must provide a race-neutral reason for the disputed strike. Two lower appeals courts upheld the defendant’s conviction, on the basis that the prosecutors had legitimate non-racial reasons for their strikes, and so the fact that the jury wound up being all white was essentially coincidental.

Decision

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed, and concluded that the Butts County prosecutors provided pretextual reasons for their strikes.

Specifically, prosecutors claimed that they struck one male potential black juror because his son was the same age as the defendant, which they feared might make him overly sympathetic towards the defense, and the man was a member of the Church of Christ, an organization that has taken a public stand against capital punishment. But white jurors with sons of similar ages were permitted to serve, as were other white Church of Christ members. And, given the note about black churches, the prosecutors’ reasons for their strike “fail[ed] to withstand scrutiny,” according to Chief Justice Roberts.

Prosecutors removed another potential black female juror because they claimed the 34-year-old was too young. But, prosecutors did not strike any of the other eight jurors, who were all white, that were of a similar age. Prosecutors also insisted that they struck the woman because they did not know her stance on issues like criminal insanity, alcohol use, and pre-trial publicity, but according to the record, they asked her several questions about these topics during jury selection.

When taken together, Chief Justice Roberts concluded, the circumstantial evidence “tends to suggest purposeful discrimination.” Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate opinion agreeing with the result. Justice Clarence Thomas, the only dissenting Justice, argued that the High Court did not have jurisdiction over the matter and that the record contained new evidence which should have been thrown out.

Application

Until now, it has been very difficult to win reversals premised on racial bias in jury selection, unless there was a “smoking gun.” Although such evidence was arguably available, like the racially-charged sentencing argument and the handwritten notes, the Court instead focused on the circumstantial evidence. In the future, prosecutors may have a more difficult time convincing an appeals court that their challenges were race-neutral, based on the way the Justices scrutinized the circumstantial evidence in Foster.

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