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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 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“How America Tolerates Racism In Jury Selection”: Discrimination In Jury Selection Is Indeed A National Problem

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Foster v. Chatman, a case that challenges the all-too-common practice by which prosecutors deliberately exclude African-Americans from criminal juries.

The Supreme Court tried to outlaw this practice in 1986 through its landmark ruling in Batson v. Kentucky. But prosecutors routinely ignore that decision, excluding black jurors because of marital status, manner of dress, last names and other allegedly “race neutral” reasons.

This is problematic because interracial juries make fewer factual errors, deliberate longer and consider a wider variety of perspectives than all-white juries, according to several studies.

It’s time for the court to meaningfully enforce the ban on racial discrimination in jury selection.

In 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law firm, studied eight Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee — and found the problem to be rampant.

For example, from 2005 to 2009, prosecutors in Houston County, Ala., struck 80 percent of qualified black jurors from death penalty cases. Consequently, in a county that’s 27 percent black, half of death penalty juries were all-white. The other half had one black citizen each.

Another study of death penalty trials in North Carolina shows that from 1990 to 2010, prosecutors excluded black jurors over twice as often as nonblack jurors.

An analysis of over 300 felony jury trials in Caddo Parish, La., from 2003 to 2012 found that of 8,318 qualified jurors, nearly half of black jurors were struck, compared with only 15 percent of nonblack jurors.

Clearly, Monday’s case will have national implications.

About 30 years ago, a black man, Timothy Foster, went on trial for his life in Georgia. He was accused of killing an elderly white woman. During the jury selection process, the prosecutors struck all four potential black jurors. Then, they argued before the all-white jury for a death sentence to “deter other people out there in the projects.” They probably would have made a different argument if the jury had included at least one of the black citizens called to serve.

The jurors complied and sentenced Mr. Foster to death.

In at least six different ways, the prosecutors singled out eligible black jurors: Notes from the jury selection list show they marked their names with a “B” and highlighted them in green on four separate copies; circled the word “black” on their juror questionnaires; noted several as “B #1,” “B #2”; ranked potential black jurors against one another “in case it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors”; and wrote “Definite NOs” on the list of priority strikes, which had all four possible black jurors.

And how often are whites or blacks, women or men, gays or straights, muslims or Christians, etc. dismissed because the defense strikes them?…

Although the prosecution has never admitted that race played a role in selecting a jury for Mr. Foster’s trial, some of its “race-neutral” reasons for strikes were inaccurate and inconsistent.

For example, prosecutors struck a black juror for being a social worker — but she was a teacher’s aide. Meanwhile, prosecutors accepted every white teacher and teacher’s aide in the jury pool.

When the prosecutors asked a white juror and a black juror whether the defendant’s age, which was close to that of their children, would be a factor in the sentence, the black juror said “none whatsoever” but was struck based on his son’s age. The white juror answered “probably so” and was accepted.

Along with other former prosecutors, I joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Mr. Foster. We recognize, and refuse to condone, the blatant unconstitutionality of the prosecutorial misconduct in this case. Moreover, my own experience suggests that discrimination in jury selection is indeed a national problem, despite over a century of attempted legislative and judicial remedies.

In 1995, at a workshop hosted by North Carolina’s district attorneys, the attendees were given a handout titled “Batson Justifications: Articulating Juror Negatives.” It listed acceptable reasons for striking potential jurors, like body language, attitude and other factors, that the prosecution could present in the face of a Batson challenge. These vague explanations are virtually impossible for future courts to interpret as race-based, although they often are.

Mr. Foster’s case offers a rare instance of extraordinary and well-documented misconduct. The prosecution’s notes show purposeful racial discrimination in jury strikes. A judicial system that allows for obviously discriminatory jury selection is intolerable. If the court cannot establish discrimination in this case, then the lofty language of Batson rings hollow.


By: Larry D. Thompson, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, October 30, 2015

November 3, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Judicial System, Prosecutorial Misconduct | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s Not Just Bad Cops; Prosecutors Run Wild”: The Ones Who Lie And Cheat To Win At Any Cost

One year ago, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer. Since then, the nation has debated the justice system more feverishly than any other period in recent memory. Most of the scrutiny has rightly fallen upon the police, which is where the justice system meets the people viscerally and sometimes fatally. Cops only have the power to arrest, though; the power to prosecute and put millions of Americans in prison—and more than a few to death—rests with prosecutors.

And too many are abusing that power.

Suppressing evidence, coddling informants, even outright lying are some of the instances of prosecutorial misconduct that sent away nearly half the 1,621 people convicted for crimes they didn’t commit since 1989, according to the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations. These are only the cases we know about, and they are surely only a fraction of the wrongly convicted. Even so, the figure is stunning—especially when you consider that 115 of them were people condemned to die.

The punishment for bad prosecutorial misconduct is virtually nil. In a 2011 report on 707 such cases, only six prosecutors were disciplined. Almost all still have their licenses, and are still practicing law.

Almost nothing is being done to systematically fix prosecutorial misconduct despite multiple avenues available for reform and bipartisan agreement that there’s an epidemic on our hands. But, let’s face it, convicted criminals (even wrongfully convicted ones) don’t play well at the polls.

Over the next several weeks, The Daily Beast will dive into this blight on the judicial system. We’ll look at how money, race, and politics distort the judicial system, and incentivize even decent attorneys to misbehave. We’ll talk with some of the leading critics of the system, liberal and conservative. And we’ll hear some of the most appalling tales of prosecutors run amok—in many cases, involving attorneys still on the job, unsanctioned and undeterred.

The prosecutorial role is an unusual one in the American judicial system. Usually, attorneys have one client, and their responsibility is to advocate solely for that client’s interests. Prosecutors, however, have a dual responsibility. On the one hand, they are the government’s lawyers, charged with making the state’s best case against the accused. On the other hand, prosecutors are also part of the judicial system, and they are meant not simply to secure convictions, but to pursue justice.

At times, those two obligations conflict. When a prosecutor discovers potentially exculpatory evidence, he or she must disclose it—as confirmed by the Supreme Court in the 1963 Brady decision. No civil lawyer would do this; nor would any criminal defense lawyer. But prosecutors are uniquely cast in the dual roles of advocates and what some have called “ministers of justice.”

In theory, anyway. In practice, numerous factors cause many prosecutors to tilt toward convictions. Perhaps the best known recent example is the corruption trial of former Senator Ted Stevens, which resulted in his conviction, and in which the government was later found to have withheld exculpatory evidence. By that time it was too late for Stevens, who had already died.

America is the only country in the world in which many prosecutors are elected—and many of them run as being “tough on crime.” The disciplinary commission that sanctioned Durham County, North Carolina District Attorney Michael Nifong—prosecutor of the Duke lacross team on false rape charges—noted his upcoming primary election as a motivating factor for his misconduct. The pressure to produce wins has led to a “win-at-all-costs” mentality in some offices, especially when voters reward such behavior.

Perhaps most importantly, prosecutors are granted immunity for most kinds of misconduct. It’s easy to see the reasons for this policy: otherwise, every well-heeled convict would sue, clogging the system and making it impossible for prosecutors to do their jobs. At the same time, that immunity is so absolute that prosecutors simply get off scot-free, even when misconduct is established. Even worse, most states lack any meaningful oversight of prosecutors: no commissions, no review boards, nothing.

Then there’s race. Ninety-five percent of elected prosecutors are white, and two-thirds of the states that elect prosecutors have no black ones. Yet 40 percent of the incarcerated population is black and one in three black men will have spent time in prison. How is the justice system supposed to be seen as fair when this crucial element of it is almost exclusively run by white people?

Despite the racial divide, the response to prosecutorial misconduct and overzealousness has been striking in its bipartisan nature.

In some ways, the issue of prosecutorial misconduct is an ideal opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Republicans wary of overzealous state action become concerned “when district attorneys attack,” to quote the National Review. Conservatives also place a high value on public trust in the justice system, and are thus keen to root out bad prosecutors who may undermine it.

Judge Alex Kozinski, no bleeding heart liberal, recently called the problem an “epidemic,” excoriated a California prosecutor for trying to maintain a conviction (in probably the only appellate court recording to qualify as “viral” on YouTube), and proposed a host of major reforms.

Liberals, meanwhile, may see overzealous prosecutors not as anomalies within an otherwise just system, but as examples of an inherently unjustice system doing little to protect the vulnerable, especially people of color. Liberals tend to value fairness and compassion over the strong administration of justice, even when some guilty people may go free as a result. Thus they, too, are wary of prosecutorial misconduct, albeit for very different reasons from conservatives.

It’s odd, then, that so little has been done. For example, efforts to create an oversight commission in New York have failed two years in a row, and there is nothing on the congressional agenda.

That’s not for lack of proposed reforms, which The Daily Beast will explore in detail in the coming weeks. These include proposals to:

– Create oversight boards, like those that already exist for judges, to monitor, censure, and report misconduct;

– Allow the wrongly convicted to sue for monetary relief—including from the prosecutor’s office, if misconduct is established;

– Reduce prosecutorial immunity to a qualified, rather than absolute, form. In particular, open prosecutors to be tried for perjury if they have lied under oath;

– Eliminate the election of prosecutors, which distorts the incentives they face;

– Expand Brady requirements with model rules which states could adopt as they see fit. These could include an “open file rule,” in which all information about a case must be shared with defense counsel; and

– Investigate the racial disparity among prosecutors and treat it as a civil rights issue.

Perhaps the time for such reform is, at last, at hand. The seemingly unlimited use of police violence against people of color, and the failure of prosecutors to take action against it, has led to a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system at large—one amplified by the racial disparities within that very system.

Is it possible that the left’s concern with racial justice, and the right’s concern with law and order, might converge in this area where reform is so desperately needed? Will there be progress at last?


By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, August 8, 2015

August 9, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Police Abuse, Prosecutorial Misconduct | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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