The United States Supreme Court issued an extraordinary win today on a Batson claim in Foster v. Chatman, No. 14-8349 (filed May 23, 2016).  Congratulations to our colleagues at the Southern Center for Human Rights for their hard work and perseverance!

The case arises out of Rome, Georgia where a very sympathetic victim was murdered and sexually assaulted.  Foster was quickly arrested and charged with her murder.  It was a death penalty case.  During jury selection, 42 potential venire persons were qualified.  Of these, 5 were African-American.  After one African-American was removed due to her relationship with one of the parties, 4 remained.   The State had 10 peremptory challenges at its disposal; defense had 20.  The State used 9 of 10 of its strikes, and removed all four African-Americans.

Years later, after Foster’s counsel obtained the State’s file pursuant to Georgia’s Open Records law, habeas counsel resurrected a Batson claim based on writings contained in the State’s files showing that the prosecutors were highly race conscious.  For example, the African-American potential jurors were specifically highlighted.  One of the investigators wrote:

“If it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [this one] might be okay . . . upon picking of the jury after listening to all of the jurors we had to pick, if we had to pick a black juror I recommend that [this juror] be one of the jurors.”

Subtle, huh?

Other writings showed that the prosecutors wrote “definite NO’s” on a list, and listed the five African-Americans (and one Caucasian).  Writings also indicated that one juror was a member of the Church of Christ, and noted that was a “black church.”

After addressing a jurisdictional issue, the Court assessed the merits of the Batson claim.  The “Constitution forbids striking even a single prospective juror for a discriminatory purpose.”  Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472, 478 (2008).  In noting that it was not clear who the author(s) were of some of the documents contained in the prosecution’s file, the Court “made it clear that in considering a Batson objection, or in reviewing a ruling claimed to be Batson error, all of the circumstances that bear upon the issue of racial animosity must be consulted.  Snyder at 478.

The Batson objection centered around two prospective jurors, Marilyn Garrett and Eddie Hood.   According to the prosecutor (Lanier), on the morning of trial, the State had not made up its mind to remove Ms. Garrett.  Ultimately, it did strike her, and the prosecutor gave a number of “reasons”:  1) she worked with disadvantaged youth, 2) she kept looking at the ground during voir dire, 3) she gave short answers during voir dire, 4) she appeared nervous, 5) she was too young, 6) she misrepresented her familiarity with the location of the crime, 7) she failed to disclose her cousin had been arrested for drugs, 8) she was divorced, 9) she had two children and two jobs, 10) she was asked few questions by the defense, and 11) she did not ask to be excused from jury service.    The Court examined the record and found that much of Lanier’s reasoning was not grounded in fact.

In fact, the documents obtained by counsel revealed that, under NO circumstances, was Ms. Garrett going to be allowed to serve on the jury.  Lanier had simply lied in trying to justify the strike.  But also, the Court conducted a comparative juror analysis, and found that, in fact, the defense did ask Garrett questions (despite #10 above), and that the State willingly accepted three prospective white jurors who were divorced (despite #8 above).  The State also did not strike 8 prospective white jurors under the age of 36 (despite #5 above).  And also, the State did not strike a white juror who was not familiar with the crime scene area despite living in the area (despite #6 above).

Then, juror Hood.  Lanier purported to strike him for the following reasons:  1) he had a son who was the same age as the defendant, 2) he had a wife who worked in food service at the local mental health institution, 3) he had experienced food poisoning during voir dire, 4) he was slow in responding to death penalty questions, 5) he was a member of the Church of Christ, 6) he had a brother who counseled drug offenders; 7) he was not asked enough questions by the defense during voir dire, and 8) he asked to be excused from jury service (but see Ms. Garrett’s Reason #11!).

The Court found that Lanier’s justifications for this strike shifted over time.  Initially, he claimed Hood’s son’s age was the most critical factor to his decision.  Then, he claimed it was the Church of Christ affiliation.  The Court’s review of the record showed that neither justification held water. The Court also took Lanier to task for mischaracterizing the record.  Lanier claimed to have removed other Church of Christ members, but that claim was simply false.  Instead, one of Church of Christ jurors was removed for categorical opposition to capital punishment.  Another was excused because she was 5 ½ months pregnant, and the third was excused because he had formed an opinion as to Foster’s guilt.   In addition to the comparative juror analysis, the Court found that “[t]he prosecution’s file fortifies our conclusion that any reliance on Hood’s religion was pretextual.”  Indeed, the notations found in the file indicated, NO Black Church.

The Court conducted further comparative juror analysis, and found evidence of purposeful discrimination.   As the Court explained in Miller-El v. Dretke, “[i]f a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack [panelist] who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination.”  545 U.S. 231, 241 (2005).  The Court found that the State’s focus on race, as revealed in its files, “plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion where he provides pointers to the State of Georgia to help them in their efforts to uphold this conviction.   Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion that would make Justice Thurgood Marshall roll over in his grave.

Excellent work by Stephen Bright, Patrick Mulvaney, Katie Chamblee and everyone else at the South Center for Human Rights!