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Supreme Court Finds Racial Bias in 1987 Death Penalty Trial

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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 neutral.”

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.