Monday, May 23, 2016
In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts in Foster v. Chatman, the Court reversed the finding on the Georgia courts that death row inmate Timothy Foster did not demonstrate the type of purposeful discrimination in jury selection to substantiate an Equal Protection Clause violation as required under Batson v. Kentucky (1986).
Recall that in 1987 an all-white jury convicted Timothy Tyrone Foster, a "poor, black, intellectually compromised eighteen year old" of the murder of an elderly white woman. At trial, one black potential juror was removed for cause, and the prosecutors removed all four of the remaining black prospective jurors by peremptory strike, and proffered race-neutral reasons when defense counsel raised a challenge under the then-recent case of Batson. The judge rejected defense counsel's argument that the race-neutral reasons were pretexual and denied the Batson challenge. The Georgia courts affirmed.
Almost twenty years later, pursuant to a request under the state open records act, Foster gained access to the prosecution team's jury selection notes, which included highlighting the black potential jurors (image at right), circling the word "black" as an answer to the race question on the juror questionnaire, identifying the black potential jurors as B#1, B#2, and B#3 in the notes, and a draft affidavit by the prosecution investigator stating "“if we had to pick a black juror then I recommend that [Marilyn] Garrett be one of the jurors; with a big doubt still remaining.” (The affidavit was originally submitted to the court with all mentions of race excised).
In today's relatively brief opinion - - - 25 pages - - - Chief Justice Roberts carefully recited the facts and then focused on the materials in the "prosecution file." The Court concluded:
The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a “color-blind” manner. The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting. The State, however, claims that things are not quite as bad as they seem. The focus on black prospective jurors, it contends, does not indicate any attempt to exclude them from the jury. It instead reflects an effort to ensure that the State was “thoughtful and non-discriminatory in [its] consideration of black prospective jurors [and] to develop and maintain detailed information on those prospective jurors in order to properly defend against any suggestion that decisions regarding [its] selections were pretextual.” Batson after all, had come down only months before Foster’s trial. The prosecutors, according to the State, were uncertain what sort of showing might be demanded of them and wanted to be prepared.
This argument falls flat. To begin, it “reeks of afterthought,” [citation omitted] having never before been made in the nearly 30-year history of this litigation: not in the trial court, not in the state habeas court, and not even in the State’s brief in opposition to Foster’s petition for certiorari. 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 argues that it “was actively seeking a black juror.” But this claim is not credible. An “N” appeared next to each of the black prospective jurors’ names on the jury venire list. An “N” was also noted next to the name of each black prospective juror on the list of the 42 qualified prospective jurors; each of those names also appeared on the “definite NO’s” list. And a draft affidavit from the prosecution’s investigator stated his view that “[i]f it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [Marilyn] Garrett, might be okay.” Such references are inconsistent with attempts to “actively see[k]” a black juror.
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 [potential jurors] Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.
[citations to record omitted].
Only Justices Alito and Thomas did not join Roberts's opinion for the Court; Alito to write a separate concurring opinion and Thomas to write a dissenting opinion. Alito's concurring opinion states its purpose as to "explain my understanding of the role of state law in the proceedings that must be held on remand." For Alito, while the Georgia Supreme Court is "bound to accept" the Court's evaluation of the federal constitutional question that there was an Equal Protection Clause violation under Batson, "whether that conclusion justifies relief under state res judicata law is a matter for that court to decide." Alito notes that the Court is "evidencing a predilection" for granting review of state-court decisions denying postconviction relief, a "trend" he argues is inconsistent with the States' "legitimate interest in structuring their systems of postconviction review in a way that militates against repetitive litigation and endless delay." Alito's opinion only vaguely alludes to the claim that the Batson evidence was not made available to Foster. As for Thomas, his dissenting opinion stresses that the trial court observed the jury selection "firsthand" and "its evaluation of the prosecution's credibility" is "certainly far better than this Court's 30 years later." Thomas's opinion also argues that the "new evidence" has "limited probative value" and is "no excuse" for the Court's reversal of the state court's "credibility determinations."
Nevertheless, the Court's clear majority (of six) conclude that the prosecution violated the Equal Protection Clause when it engineered an all white jury to convict and sentence Timothy Foster.