Supreme Court Reverses Death Penalty Conviction Because of Racially Biased Jury Selection

In a 7-1 opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts the Supreme Court held in Foster v. Chatman that the prosecutor’s decision to exercise preemptory strikes against all four prospective black jurors was racially motivated in violation of Batson v. Kentucky (1986). Five previous lower court rulings on this issue disagreed.    

In 1987 Timothy Tyrone Foster, who is black, was sentenced to death for murdering, sexually assaulting, and burglarizing an elderly white woman. The jury was all-white; the prosecutor peremptorily struck all four prospective black jurors. Prosecutors may strike a number of jurors for any unstated reason except because of race and sex, the Supreme Court has held.

Through a public records request, Foster gained access to the prosecutor’s trial file. Among other things, on the jury venire list the names of the black jurors were highlighted in green and a key indicated that green represented black. The prosecution’s investigator recommended a particular black juror if one had to be selected. Two different lists of qualified jurors indicated that all black jurors were a “no.”

The Supreme Court concluded that the prosecutor had a discriminatory purpose in striking all four prospective black jurors pointing out there was compelling evidence that black jurors were struck for particular reasons where white jurors were allowed to serve. “But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution file.”

More specifically, the prosecutor claimed he struck Marilyn Garrett because she was divorced, too young (34), and claimed she wasn’t familiar with the location of the crime scene, which was near the high school she attended. But the prosecutor declined to strike three of four prospective divorced white jurors, declined to strike eight prospective white jurors under the age of 36, and declined to strike a prospective white juror who claimed she was unfamiliar with the neighborhood but lived and worked nearby.

Likewise, the prosecutor first claimed he struck Eddie Hood because he had a son the same age as Foster who was convicted “basically of the same thing.” Then he claimed he struck Hood because he was a member of the Church of Christ. The Court pointed out Foster’s crimes were nothing like Hood’s son’s crime (stealing hubcaps from a car in a mall parking lot five years before) and the prosecutors kept two white prospective jurors with children similar in age to Foster. While the prosecutor claimed he struck three white prospective Church of Christ-member jurors because of their opposition to the death penalty—all three jurors were excluded for other reasons; and Hood testified four times he was willing to impose the death penalty.