SCOTUS Says Race Was Factor in Death Row Sentence

By Kenrya Rankin May 24, 2016

The Supreme Court just made a major statement with regard to how juries are picked in this country. Yesterday (May 23), the court issued a ruling in Foster v. Chatman, deciding 7 to 1 that the Georgia Supreme Court ignored evidence that proved racial discrimination ruled the selection of the jury that sentenced Timothy Foster to death.

In 1987, an all-White jury convicted Foster—a Black teenager with intellectual disabilities—of murdering a White woman. In 2015, the Southern Center for Human Rights uncovered prosecutorial documents that proved that the attorneys representing the state used peremptory challenges (those that don’t require an official reason) to systematically remove Black jurors from the trial and increase the chance of a capital conviction. Those documents show that prosecutors not only labeled the potential jurors by race, but also wrote things like, “if it comes down to having to pick one of the Black jurors, [Marilyn] Garrett, might be okay.”

Foster appealed his conviction, arguing that prosecutors violated Batson v. Kentucky, which says that race cannot be used as a factor to strike someone from a jury. The lower court rejected the appeal, and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed that decision and also denied him further appeals at the state level. SCOTUS subsequently agreed to hear the case, and seven of the sitting judges reversed the Georgia court’s decision. As Chief Justice John Roberts writes in the Court’s opinion:

In addition, the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep Black prospective jurors off the jury.… The state’s new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.

Following the decision, Foster’s attorney Stephen Bright made it clear that this type of discrimination occurs more often that many think, saying:

This discrimination became apparent only because we obtained the prosecution’s notes which revealed their intent to discriminate. Usually that does not happen. The practice of discriminating in striking juries continues in courtrooms across the country. Usually courts ignore patterns of race discrimination and accept false reasons for the strikes. Even after the undeniable evidence of discrimination was presented in this case, the Georgia courts ignored it and upheld Foster’s conviction and death sentence.

Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas—the only Black justice—was the lone dissenter on the Supreme Court. In his opinion, he writes that the court rules for Foster “without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction.” He concluded with the following passage:

Today, without first seeking clarification from Georgia’s highest court that it decided a federal question, the Court affords a death-row inmate another opportunity to relitigate his long-final conviction. In few other circumstances could I imagine the Court spilling so much ink over a fact-bound claim arising from a state post-conviction proceeding. It was the trial court that observed the veniremen firsthand and heard them answer the prosecution’s questions, and its evaluation of the prosecution’s credibility on this point is certainly far better than this Court’s nearly 30 years later.

(H/t Mother Jones)