Foster v. Chatman

On the morning of August 28, 1986, police found Queen Madge White dead on the floor of her home in Rome, Georgia. White, a 79-year-old widow, had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death. Her home had been burglarized. Timothy Foster subsequently confessed to killing White, and White’s possessions were recovered from Foster’s home and from Foster’s two sisters.

(Foster v. Chatman (2016) 578 U.S. ___.)  These are the opening lines of Justice Roberts’ majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s latest jury selection case.  Foster v. Chatman is a well-meaning decision aiming to strike a blow at racism.  Instead, it makes peremptory challenges against African-Americans extremely dangerous to prosecutors.

White lived by herself in Rome Georgia.  Early in the evening of August 27, 1986, a friend took White to choir practice.  When White’s sister stopped by early the next morning, she discovered that White’s house had been broken into and ransacked.

[The police] found White’s body lying on the floor in her bedroom covered to her chin by a blanket. Her face was coated with talcum powder. Her jaw was broken. She had a severe gash on the top of her head. She had been sexually molested with a salad-dressing bottle, and strangled to death. A number of her possessions were missing from her home.

(Foster v. The State (1988) 258 Ga. 736.)

Timothy Tyrone Foster was arrested for White’s murder a month later when he threatened another person and she turned him in.  The police recovered White’s possessions from Foster’s home and the homes of his two sisters.

Foster confessed.  He said that White got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.  She returned to her bedroom and turned on the lamp.  Then she noticed Foster in her living room.  White got out a knife and chased Foster, but he picked up a fireplace log and hit White hard enough to break her jaw.  He then admitted the sexual molestation and strangling.

The Procedural Posture

By the time the parties completed for cause challenges in the trial court, four black jurors were left out of 42 total jurors.  The prosecution exercised nine of its ten peremptory challenges, removing all four of the remaining black prospective jurors.  Foster was convicted.  During the sentencing phase, the prosecutor urged jurors to sentence Foster to death to deter people “out there in the projects.”

After the trial was over, Foster filed a series of Open Records Act requests.  He obtained documents related to jury selection at trial.  On the jury venire list, the name of each black juror was highlighted in green.  On these jurors’ jury questionnaires, their race had been circled.  On a list of jurors remaining after for cause challenges, there were ten “N”s next to jurors the prosecution intended to remove, including next to the names of all the black jurors.  The five black jurors were included in the prosecution’s list of six “definite NO’s” [sic].  There were three handwritten notes on black prospective jurors in which they were labeled “B#1”, “B#2”, etc.  There was a handwritten document titled “Church of Christ”.  A notation on that document read: “NO.  No Black Church.”

The jury list (Prawfsblawg)

The prosecution employed an investigator who was black himself.  The investigator wrote a draft document with his views of the jurors.  In it, he wrote: “If it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [this one] might be okay.  This is solely my opinion.”  This language was removed from the final document by the prosecutor.


Many Courts Reviewed These Facts And Only The Supreme Court Found Racism.

The defense challenged the prosecution under Batson v. Kentucky (1986) 476 U.S. 79, claiming that the prosecution’s challenges were racially motivated.  The trial court denied this claim.  Following sentencing, Foster renewed his Batson claim in a motion for a new trial.  After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court again denied his motion.  Foster sought a writ of habeas corpus on the Batson issue.  He discovered and admitted the evidence from the prosecution file, described above.  The state habeas court considered this evidence and denied relief.  They held that Foster “fail[ed] to demonstrate purposeful discrimination.”  The Georgia Supreme Court then reviewed the case.  They denied Foster his ability to appeal the case further, holding that his claim had no “arguable merit.”

Despite the fact that the trial court had denied Foster’s Batson claim twice, the habeas court denied his claim, and the Georgia Supreme Court held the claim had no merit, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed all of these courts in holding that the prosecution was motivated by race.

During oral argument, Justice Kagan said, “Isn’t this as clear a Batson violation as a court is ever going to see?”  Justice, Roberts, writing for the 7-1 majority, gave what has been described as “a devastating indictment of the prosecutors.”  Ironically, the only justice in dissent was Justice Thomas.

The Court reversed Foster’s conviction, meaning he can go back to the Georgia Supreme Court and will probably get a new trial.

Prosecutors Are In A No-Win Situation When Deciding Whether To Document Race.  

Justice Roberts was particularly troubled by the “arresting” number of references to race in the prosecution file.  He criticized prosecutors for “the persistent focus on race in [their] file.”  The clear implication is that prosecutors who make notes about the race of the prospective jurors might be keeping track in order to discriminate.  Indeed, Roberts and the other justices considered these notes as evidence of racism.  A conscientious prosecutor, who is actually not violating Batson, would not want to make such notes.  Such a prosecutor might reasonably believe that such notes may be used against him by a zealous defense attorney and a hostile appellate court.

On the other hand, prudent prosecutors need to keep track of the race of all the prospective jurors to protect themselves from Batson challenges at the trial court level.  For example, a prosecutor defending against a Batson challenge might need to point out that she has challenged jurors of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.  She might need to rely on more than her memory, especially in a high-pressure trial.  She might need notes.  Moreover, courts don’t review cases for many years.  Memories fade.  Prosecutors therefore need to document the grounds for their peremptory challenges, in order to explain them many years later.

At The End Of The Day, We Should Not Forget That There Is No Real Doubt As To Foster’s Guilt.

Foster confessed.  The confession was voluntary: there isn’t even an allegation (much less evidence) that this confession was coerced.  The confession was corroborated by the recovery of the victim’s property in Foster’s home.

Timothy Foster (AP)

This is not a case in which an innocent person of color ended up in jail due to racial prejudice, as some commentators have suggested.  This is a case in which a murderer had his conviction reversed on a flimsy technicality by well-intentioned justices.  As a result, prosecutors are facing an even more difficult situation during peremptory challenges.  Maybe we should just get rid of them altogether.

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