Supreme Court Rules Prosecutors Violated Constitution in Striking all Blacks from Jury
The ABA Journal reports that the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a Georgia death-row inmate who argued that prosecutors at his criminal trial violated his Constitutional rights when they eliminated all prospective black jurors from the jury pool in his case. In Foster v. Chatman, the Court found that prosecutors’ use of peremptory jury strikes was racially motivated, reversing the trial result and sending the case back to the lower court.
What are peremptory strikes?
The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment grants the defendant in a criminal trial the right to an impartial jury. This right is popularly known as the right to “a jury of one’s peers,” but primarily is meant to ensure that jurors represent a fair cross-section of the community. After a jury pool has been assembled, both the prosecution and defense have the right to “strike” – that is, reject – some jurors. There are two types of challenges to a potential juror:
- Challenge for cause – intended to disqualify a juror for a particular, stated reason, such as bias, or personal knowledge of the case before the court.
- Peremptory challenge – used to disqualify a juror without expressing any reason. The number of peremptory challenges is limited, and these challenges cannot be used to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.
The Supreme Court established a framework for courts to examine allegations that a peremptory challenge was used to discriminate in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). Batson prescribes a three-step process:
- The defendant must make a preliminary showing that a peremptory challenge was exercised on the basis of race;
- The prosecution must offer a race-neutral reason for exercising the challenge; and
- The court must assess both parties’ submissions to determine whether in fact the challenge was racially discriminatory.
Foster v. Chatman
In the recent case, defendant Timothy Foster was charged with burglary and murder of an elderly woman. He faced the death penalty. After a detailed process, 42 prospective jurors were deemed qualified to serve. Four of them were black. The prosecution used peremptory challenges to strike all four. Thereafter, Foster was convicted and sentenced to death.
Foster argued that two of the four black jurors were struck because of their race. The evidence showed that, on the jury list in the prosecutor’s files, the names of the four were highlighted and a “B” was written next to each name. Also, all four names were included on a list in the prosecutor’s files that was labeled “definite nos.” Other evidence also suggested a focus on the jurors’ race. Although prosecutors were able to articulate race-neutral reasons to support the strikes, the Supreme Court found those reasons not believable, instead pointing to evidence suggesting deliberate discrimination that included prosecutors’ “shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution’s file.”
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