In an important decision delivered today, the United States Supreme Court reversed the capital murder conviction of a Georgia inmate who was found guilty after the racist prosecution team excluded all of the black prospective jurors from being seated on his case. The name of the case is Foster v. Chatman.
On a morning in August of 1986, the police found a 79-year-old Georgia woman dead in her home. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and strangled to death. The defendant later confessed to the murder. The victim’s belongings were found in the defendant’s home and in the possession of his two sisters. The state charged him with first-degree murder, which carries the death penalty in Georgia. It appeared to be a strong case for the government.
District Attorney Stephen Lanier and Assistant District Attorney Douglas Pullen prosecuted the defendant’s case. During jury selection, there were four black people who were present as prospective jurors. Each party had a certain number of peremptory challenges, which means the attorneys could exclude a set number of prospective jurors from serving without giving a reason for their exclusion. The prosecutors struck all four of the black prospective jurors with their peremptory challenges. The defendant was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
While there are few limits to the exercise of peremptory challenges, a party is not permitted to exclude a prospective juror based on the prospective juror’s race. The defendant objected during jury selection to the prosecutors’ challenges of all the black prospective jurors, and the trial judge overruled his objection. Following his conviction, the defendant filed a request pursuant to the Georgia Open Records Act to view the prosecution’s trial file. One of the documents was a roster of the prospective jurors. Each of the black jurors’ names was highlighted with the letter “B” appearing next to his or her name. Other documents in the file contained notations with phrases such as, “No Black Church” and there was a list of “definite NO’s” which listed all of the black prospective jurors (and only one non-black prospective juror). The two trial prosecutors denied writing the racist comments on the documents. The Georgia state courts denied relief to the defendant and he appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The blatant racism of the prosecution team made this an easy case for the Supreme Court to decide, and seven justices voted to reverse the defendant’s conviction. Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose. The Court rejected the district attorney’s justifications for striking at least two of the black prospective jurors (going so far as to label the prosecutor’s statements to the trial court as “misrepresentations”). The Court criticized the prosecution’s reasons for its use of the peremptory challenges, noting that the reasons shifted over time, suggesting they were “pretextual.” The Court ultimately concluded that the focus on race in the prosecutors’ file “plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” Because the prosecutors struck potential jurors based on their race, the defendant is entitled to a new trial.
Justice Thomas was the sole justice who would have upheld the defendant’s conviction and death sentence, and he wrote a shameful dissent stating, in part, that the despicably racist contents of the prosecution’s file “has limited probative value.”
This case involves the federal cases that prohibit attorneys from excluding potential jurors for discriminatory reasons. Massachusetts courts have delivered opinions consistent with the federal cases. The problem is trial judges are responsible for making split second decisions about whether an attorney who challenges a juror is doing so for a race-neutral reason. It’s an impossibly hard judgment to make. There are compelling arguments (supported by what happened in this case) that peremptory challenges should be eliminated altogether.