In case you missed it, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision yesterday when it overturned the conviction of an African-American man from Georgia whose trial featured some of the most outrageous, race-based behavior by prosecutors you can imagine. Basically, as Chief Justice Roberts detailed in his opinion, prosecutors did everything they could to keep people of color off the jury and then left a paper trail of their outrageous behavior. The decision to overturn was 7-1.
Sadly and weirdly, Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. Here’s Ian Millhiser explaining at Think Progress:
It is tough to imagine a more egregious case of jury discrimination than Foster v. Chatman. The prosecutor’s office in this Georgia death penalty case struck every single black member of the jury pool. They made four copies of a list of prospective jurors, highlighting every African-American on the list in green next to a legend indicating that such highlighting “represents Blacks.” An investigator working for the prosecution advised prosecutors that “if it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors,” then one in particular “might be okay.” A note on one of the prosecution’s internal documents suggested that the office did not want a particular juror to be seated because of the juror’s membership in a “Black Church.”
And yet, even with all of this evidence and more at his fingertips, Justice Clarence Thomas said that the Court should not rule that unconstitutional jury discrimination took place in this case.
Fortunately for Timothy Foster, the death row inmate who was tried under these conditions, Thomas was alone in this view. All seven other members of the Court agreed that Foster’s constitutional rights were violated (although Alito did so in a separate opinion that only he joined).
Though Mr. Foster prevailed, the case is a window into why individuals alleging that their convictions were tainted by jury discrimination rarely succeed in court. In many jurisdictions, including Georgia, attorneys in criminal cases are permitted to strike jurors from a jury pool using “peremptory challenges.” Normally, these challenges can be exercised for any reason. Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky, however, such challenges may not be used to engage in “purposeful racial discrimination.” Read more