Foster v. Chatman – SCOTUS Rules on Juror Race Discrimination

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in favor of a black man on death row in Georgia who alleged prosecutors violated his constitutional rights by ensuring an all-white jury by using their peremptory challenges during jury selection to strike potential jurors of color. jury1

The groundbreaking decision in Foster v. Chatman makes it clear that this kind of discrimination will not stand.

“Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The court analyzed the fact that the four black jurors who remained as potential jurors at the last phase of jury selection were all labeled in the prosecutor’s file with the letter “B” next to each of their names – for “black.” Each of these were listed as a “definite no.” Further notations in the file indicated, “No Black Church.”

Defendant Timothy Foster was on trial for a horrific crime: The 1986 rape and murder of a 79-year-old widowed woman. The victim was white. Defendant is black.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court, prosecutors would insist their motives had nothing to do with race. They cited a number of race-neutral reasons for eliminating those jurors. However, justices viewed those explanations with skepticism. Roberts took note of the fact that prosecutors routinely focused on race in their files. In addition, explanations of why those particular jurors were removed changed several times. There were also numerous misrepresentations on the record.

Among the reasons the prosecutor gave for striking one potential black juror were:

  • She had two children and two jobs;
  • She did not ask to be excused from jury service;
  • She was too young;
  • She seemed nervous;
  • She did not fully explain her familiarity with the location of the crime;
  • She did not disclose to the court that her cousin had once been arrested for a drug-related crime;
  • She was divorced;
  • She repeatedly looked at the ground;
  • She worked with disadvantaged youth as part of her job;
  • She gave short answers to prosecutors’ questions.

Yet, a number of other jurors who were ultimately accepted – all of whom were white – had many of these same attributes. The state insisted the jurors were struck following extensive investigation as to the background of each potential juror – not their race – and that any discrimination was “not purposeful.”

The reasons the prosecutors later gave for striking these jurors, Roberts said, “reeks of an afterthought.”

Our Miami defense lawyers know the question here was whether this amounted to a Batson violation. This refers to the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the use of peremptory challenges to remove a potential jury from the jury pool based on race is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In that case, the court ruled that while a defendant is not entitled to jurors who are completely or even partially of his own race, the state can’t use its peremptory challenges to automatically block potential members of the jury on the basis of their race.

Here, the court ruled that prosecutors’ highlighting of black jurors and singling them out as “definite no’s” and other notes amounted to a Baston violation.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a free consultation on your pending criminal matter.

Additional Resources:

SCOTUS rules for black man who claimed prosecutors eliminated blacks from jury on basis of race, May 23, 2016, By Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal