Court Agrees to Hear Matter Pertaining to Exclusion of Black Jurors in Georgia Murder Trial – Foster v. Humphrey
The famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Batson v. Kentucky in 1986 ruled that prosecutors could not use peremptory challenges (the dismissal of jurors without having to state a valid cause) during a criminal trial based solely on race.
Nearly 30 years later, a possible Batson violation is scheduled for the Supreme Court’s fall-winter docket. The Court recently agreed to hear the case, Foster v. Humphrey, wherein Timothy Tyrone Foster was convicted by an all-white jury in Georgia of the murder of a white woman in 1987.
During Foster’s trial, defense attorneys attempted to use the Batson ruling to challenge the prosecution’s dismissal of black jurors. It was alleged at the time that potential black jurors had been rejected solely on race, but the judge in the case dismissed the argument after prosecutors provided race-neutral explanations for each of their jury candidate strikes. Foster, then 18 years old, was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 2006, new evidence came to light when Foster’s lawyers (through an open records request) obtained notes used by prosecutors. The notes showed that questionnaires with the names of prospective black jurors had been highlighted; the word “black” (on the question asking for the race of the jury candidate) was circled in green prior to the start of jury selection.
The state argued in court documents that potential black jurors were struck based on an extensive background check rather than race, and there was no purposeful discrimination. Prosecutors testified in an affidavit that they weren’t responsible for the highlighting on the questionnaires; the blame was shifted to an investigator.
This case touches on many important aspects of criminal law and civil rights of defendants. When the court reaches a decision later this year or next year in Foster v. Humphrey, I will provide an update.
Elizabeth B. Carpenter is a criminal defense attorney in New Orleans who practices in both State and Federal Court.