In a 7 to 1 vote, the Supreme Court ruled on May 23 that prosecutor’s in
Georgia violated the Constitution by striking all prospective black jurors
for a death penalty case against a black defendant. Justice Clarence Thomas
was the only dissenting vote.
Case No. 14-8349,
Foster v. Chatman, made its way to the Supreme Court after notes from the trial against
Timothy T. Foster, a black teenager facing the death penalty for killing
an elderly white woman, Queen Madge White, came to light.
In notes from the 1987 trial of Foster, an 18-year-old at the time, prosecutors
highlighted the names of black prospective jurors in green, marked them
with a “B”, and circled the word “black” whenever
a potential juror’s race was noted on a questionnaire.
The jurors marked down were ranked in case “it comes down to having
to pick one of the black jurors,” according to a draft affidavit
written by the prosecution’s investigator. All four potential black
jurors were struck by the prosecution.
The all-white jury convicted Foster, and imposed the death penalty after
lead prosecutor Stephen Lanier’s urgings, in order to “deter
other people out there in the projects.”
Justice Thomas, in dissent, said not enough deference was given to the
prosecutor’s credibility or the trial judge’s assessment of
the demeanor of the prospective jurors. He cited one juror, Eddie Hood,
who was noted in the prosecutor’s files as a member of the Church
of Christ, as having taken an uncertain stance on capital punishment.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the prosecution violated
Batson V. Kentucky, a 1986 Supreme Court decision ruling that race-based discrimination in
jury selection was unconstitutional, and a nondiscriminatory explanation
was required from lawyers who were accused of race-based discrimination.
At the time, Lanier said that “All I have to do is have a race-neutral
reason, and all of these reasons that I have given the court are racially
Chief Justice Roberts focused on two of the prospective jurors, Hood and
Marilyn Garrett. Included in the eight reasons for striking Hood as a
prospective juror, Lanier claimed that Hood’s son, the same age
as the defendant, had been convicted of a crime that was “basically
the same thing that this defendant is charged with.”
Chief Justice Roberts called this “nonsense,” and wrote that,
“Hood’s son had received a 12-month suspended sentence for
stealing hubcaps from a car in a mall parking lot five years earlier.
Foster was charged with capital murder of a 79-year-old widow after a
brutal sexual assault.”
In the 11 reasons Lanier had for striking Garrett as a prospective juror,
he included that she was too young at 34, but the Supreme Court noted
that two white jurors under 36 served on the jury, including one who was
only 21 years old. Lanier also claimed Garrett was unfit to serve because
she was divorced, when the prosecution failed to strike three prospective
white jurors who were also divorced.
Stephen B. Bright, a lawyer for Foster, now 48-years-old, said that his
client was “entitled to a new trial at which jurors are not excluded
based on race,” but Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. suggested in a concurrence
that Georgia’s state court may still have a way to rule against Foster.