October 21, 2015

By Irene Burski

The question of racially-biased jury selection will be addressed once again by the Supreme Court in Foster v. Chatman, a case that has been in the adjudication process since 1986.

The defendant, Tyrone Foster, who was 18 years old at the time, was convicted of killing 79-year-old Queen White by a Georgia court. With Foster being a young black man and White being an older white woman, many say the case was racially charged from the onset.

In the course of jury selection, the prosecution successfully barred the four qualified black jury pool members from being on Foster’s jury. Foster’s defense attorneys argued that the prosecution only wanted the four members off the jury because they were black, but the judge disagreed, citing that the prosecution had given other reasons apart from race. Subsequently, Foster was then convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to the death penalty.

In the 1986 Batson v. Kentucky decision, the Supreme Court first took on the question of the legality of racially-biased jury selection, when a prosecutor in an eerily similar fashion to the Foster case struck four black jurors from the eligible pool, resulting in a guilty verdict of second degree burglary for the defendant James Batson.

The Supreme Court found that the prosecutor had acted in a way that violated the rights of the accused by successfully striking members of the jury pool purely on the grounds of their race matching that of the defendant. According to the court, the prosecutor’s actions were in violation of both the Sixth and the Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee the accused the right to a fair trial as well as equal protection under the law.

“The Equal Protection Clause guarantees the defendant that the state will not exclude members of his race from the jury venire on account of race or on the false assumption that members of his race as a group are not qualified to serve as jurors,” Justice Lewis Powell wrote in the 7-2 majority opinion. The Supreme Court determined that prosecutors and defense attorneys alike must provide race-neutral reasons for striking potential jurors from a jury.

But the Supreme Court failed to provide criteria for those race-neutral reasons.

“The scandal of Batson is that courts tolerate the flimsiest explanations for seemingly clear use of race by prosecutors,” Garrett Epps wrote in The Atlantic. “A minority juror may be too old, too young, over- or under-educated, a former crime victim, or a former criminal defendant; almost anything will do.”

When Foster filed a complaint grounded in the Batson case decision, the federal district court sided with the Georgia trial court, and agreed that the prosecution had provided race-neutral reasons for striking jury members.

With the Foster case coming to the Supreme Court, the justices will be forced to define in clearer terms these race-neutral reasons, expanding on Batson. Given that the punishment also invokes the death penalty for a murder as opposed to mere imprisonment for Batson’s crime, the stakes are also higher.

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