The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided the case of Foster v. Chatman. The case dealt with whether or not prosecutors in Georgia used their peremptory strikes in a racially motivated way when removed four black prospective jurors during jury selection in Timothy Foster's murder trial.
In 1986, Foster was arrested and later confessed to the sexual assault and murder of Queen Madge White. He also burglarized her home. He was subsequently charged with malice murder and burglary. His trial was held the following year. There were two parts to the jury selection: removal for cause and peremptory strikes. After the removal for cause phase, 42 jurors remained in the jury pool, five of whom were black. Prior to the peremptory strike phase beginning, one of the black jurors was removed for cause, as it turned out a close friend of hers was related to the defendant. Thus, 4 black prospective jurors remained. The state then used nine strikes to remove specific jurors, including every remaining black juror. After the state did this, Foster challenged the removals under the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision, Batson v. Kentucky. The trial court denied the challenge. Foster was convicted and subsequently sentenced to death for his crimes.
After his conviction, Foster again brought up his Batson claim when asking for a new trial. He was again denied and all his appeals were denied as well. Later, Foster filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus from the state, once again renewing his Batson claim. Prior to the hearing on this issue, Foster filed a records request to gain "access to the State's file from his 1987 trial." The documents he received included documents about the state's process in determining what jurors it would pick during jury selection. These documents provided evidence that tended to show support for Foster's Batson claim that the prospective black jurors were removed from the jury for racially motivated reasons. However, the trial court was not persuaded by the new evidence and found that his Batson claim was without merit and barred anyway by res judicata because the issue had been previously litigated. Foster appealed this decision and was denied by the Georgia Supreme Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did agree to hear his appeal.
The Court first determined that it had jurisdiction to hear the case, then turned to the merits of Foster's Batson claim. Removing potential jurors for discriminatory reasons is unconstitutional. Batson "provides a three-step process for determining when a strike is discriminatory." The steps are as follows:
- "A defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race;"
- "If that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question;"
- "In light of the parties' submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.”
The Court stated that since "[b]oth parties agree that Foster has demonstrated a prima facie case, and that the prosecutors have offered race-neutral reasons for their strikes," it would look at the third step and determine if there was purposeful discrimination. This step "turns on factual determinations, and, 'in the absence of exceptional circumstances,' we defer to state court factual findings unless we conclude that they are clearly erroneous."
In determining whether or not there was discrimination, the Court focused on the voir dire of two of the prospective black jurors, Marilyn Garrett and Eddie Hood. The Court analyzed and found the state's proffered reasons for the juror's exclusion unconvincing. It stated that "we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were 'motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.'" Further, the Court stated that "[t]he contents of the prosecution's file, however, plainly belie the State's claim that it exercised its strikes in a 'color-blind' manner." The Court goes on to say the file "the focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury."
Because of this discrimination, the Court found in Foster's favor and reversed the order of the Georgia Supreme Court, sending the case back to the Georgia courts for further proceedings.