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“Juries And Racial Bias”: The Supreme Court Cracks Down On Racist Prosecutors

The Supreme Court tends to expend more energy detangling questions of law than it does sorting through questions of fact. But on May 23rd, in a decision that could spare the life of a death-row inmate in Georgia, the justices took a microscope to the jury selection process in the trial of Timothy Tyrone Foster, a black man sentenced to die by an all-white jury in 1987 for murdering an elderly woman a year earlier. After examining evidence that emerged in 2006, the justices decided, by a 7-1 vote, that prosecutors were illicitly motivated by racial bias when they struck two blacks from Mr Foster’s jury pool. Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, wrote that there were “credible” non-racist reasons for dismissing them from the list of potential jurors; his colleagues’ dive into a three-decade-old trial, Justice Thomas charged, was “flabbergasting”.

In his majority opinion in Foster v Chatman, Chief Justice John Roberts methodically marched through rather damning evidence that the men prosecuting Mr Foster were hell-bent on keeping black people off the jury. The prosecutors’ notes during voir dire (jury selection) showed certain names highlighted in green, a colour that, the legend helpfully explains, “represents blacks”. The prospective black jurors were labelled “B#1”, “B#2” and “B#3” with capital letter “N” (meaning “no”) written next to each. All of the prospective jurors were asked to fill out a questionnaire including a question about their race; on the black individuals’ answer sheets, prosecutors drew attention to their race by circling the answer. And one of the lawyers scribbled out this sentiment: “If it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [this one] might be okay”.

All of this, Mr Foster’s lawyer said at the November oral argument, adds up to “an arsenal of smoking guns” that race was at the forefront of the prosecutors’ minds. Such bias, the Supreme Court decided in Batson v Kentucky, a ruling that came down a year before Mr Foster’s trial, is impermissible during jury selection. When eliminating potential jurors via peremptory challenges (as opposed to challenges “for cause”), lawyers can be called upon to present a race-neutral explanation for their strikes. Mr Roberts wrote that the Georgia Supreme Court had “clearly erred” when it determined that racial considerations played no part in the selection of the jury. The host of reasons cited for nixing the black jurors—too young to care about a 79-year-old victim, too (apparently) bored, too shifty-eyed, too biased by relatives who were social workers—were not persuasive, as they applied just as readily to several non-black prospective jurors who were not challenged. These justifications, the court held, were mere pretext. Add to this “the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file” and the justices are “left with the firm conviction that the strikes…were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent”.

Very late in the game, and in the face of all those smoking guns, Georgia tried to defend the apparently racist strikes with a brazenly duplicitous mind-game defence. The prosecutors were keenly aware that they would be held to a higher standard since Batson had been decided just a year earlier. They called such flamboyant attention to the race of the prospective jurors only so they could keep track of the black jurors in the event they were called upon to supply a race-neutral reason for their dismissal. This argument, Mr Roberts wrote, “falls flat” and “reeks of afterthought”, since it had not 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”. All the lights and whistles flagging the individuals’ race, he wrote, “plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

That the sole African American member of the Supreme Court bench saw the case so differently is less surprising than it might seem. In recent rulings, Justice Thomas has found himself increasingly alienated from his seven colleagues. Three times in the past two weeks, he has cast a lonely dissenting vote from an otherwise unanimous decision. But the implications of his colleagues’ ruling in Foster v Chatman remain to be seen. Mr Foster can ask for a new sentencing trial, but he has no guarantee another jury will be more lenient. And it’s unclear how much of a constraint Foster will be moving forward. Prosecutors are on notice that incriminating notations during jury selection are a very bad idea. That may lead, on the margins, to less racial discrimination in the criminal justice system—but it will do little to curtail subtler methods of jury manipulation.

 

By: Steve Mazie, The Economist, May 23, 2016

May 31, 2016 - Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Jury Selection Process, Prosecutorial Misconduct, Racial Bias | , , , , ,

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