Foster v. Chatman

PETITIONER:Timothy Tyrone Foster
RESPONDENT:Bruce Chatman, Warden
LOCATION: Superior Court of Floyd County, Georgia

DOCKET NO.: 14-8349
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: State trial court

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: May 26, 2015
ARGUED: Nov 02, 2015
DECIDED: May 23, 2016

Stephen B. Bright – for the petitioner
Beth A. Burton – for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1986, Timothy Tyrone Foster, an 18-year-old black man, was charged with murdering Queen White, an elderly white woman. At the trial, the prosecution used peremptory strikes against all four of the qualified black jurors. Pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision inBatson v. Kentucky, which prohibits the use of peremptory strikes on the basis of race, the defense objected to those strikes, and the burden shifted to the prosecution to prove that there were race-neutral explanation for the strikes. The prosecution provided reasons, and the trial court held that the reasons were sufficient. An all-white jury convicted Foster of murder and imposed the death penalty.

Foster filed a motion for post-judgment discovery regarding the prosecution’s notes during jury selection and a motion for a new trial, both of which the trial court denied. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decisions, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Foster  petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in Butts County Superior Court and submitted a newBatson challenge based on the prosecutor’s notes obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act. The court denied Foster’s petition. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the writ. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. 


Was there race-based discrimination of the typeBatson v. Kentucky prohibits in the jury selection process of Foster’s trial?

Media for Foster v. Chatman

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 02, 2015 in Foster v. Chatman

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 23, 2016 in Foster v. Chatman

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have the opinion of the Court in case 14-8349, Foster versus Chatman.

In August 1989, police found Queen Madge White, a 79-year-old widow, dead on the floor of her home in Rome, Georgia.

She had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death.

Timothy Foster confessed to killing White, and White’s possessions were recovered from Foster’s home and from his sisters.

Foster argued, however, that the confession should not be admitted and the drugs and alcohol lowered his culpability.

A jury nonetheless convicted Foster of the murder and he was sentenced to death.

This case focuses on the jury selection at Foster’s trial.

Under Georgia law, the prosecution was allotted 10 peremptory strikes, which allowed the prosecution to remove 10 prospective jurors from the jury.

The prosecution used a peremptory strike against each Black prospective juror who was considered for service.

Now it is unconstitutional to strike a prospective juror on account of race.

So the prosecution offered race-neutral reasons for each strike.

The trial court and then the Georgia Supreme Court accepted those various reasons for the strikes.

We granted certiorari to review that decision.

Now a brief word is in order about the evidence in this case.

Most cases of this sort involved trial transcripts, records and lower court opinions.

In this case, however, we have a copy of the file used by the prosecution during jury selection.

That file contains the following documents.

First, lists containing the names of each prospective juror.

The names of the Black prospective jurors are highlighted in bright green with a notation that green highlighting “represents Blacks”.

Second, a list titled definite No’s.

That list containing six names including the names of each Black prospective juror.

Third, a typed document stating that “if it comes down to having to pick one of the Black jurors” one particular one might be acceptable.

Fourth, handwritten notes identifying three Black prospective jurors as B#1, B#2 and B#3.

Fifth, questionnaires filled out by several Black prospective jurors, on each the prospective juror’s race is circled and sixth, a handwritten document containing the following note, “no, no Black church” referring to the church to which one of the Black prospective jurors belonged.

The word Black is underlined.

Now in light of the documents in the file and our independent examination of the record we conclude that the prosecutions purportedly raised neutral reasons for striking at least two of the Black prospective jurors; Marilyn Garrett and Eddie Hood were pretextual and that the strikes were instead based, in at least substantial part, on racial discrimination.

First, Marilyn Garrett, according to the state it was prepared to seat Garrett pm the jury and only made a last-minute decision to strike her after another juror was excused on the morning of the striking of the jury.

That explanation is contradicted by the record which shows Garrett’s name on the list titled “definite No’s”.

That list had only six names and it meant what it said.

There was no way that Garrett would serve.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

The record also refutes several of the other reasons the prosecution gave for striking Garrett.

For example, the state told the trial court and it struck Garrett because the defense did not ask her about her thoughts on pertinent trial issues such as the insanity defense, mental health and alcohol, or about her exposure to pretrial publicity, but the record clearly shows that she was asked several questions on each topic.

The state then told the court that it struck Garrett because she was divorced, but it did not strike three out of the four prospective White jurors who were also divorced.

The State also told the court that it struck Garrett because at age 34 she was too young, but the state declined to strike a white prospective juror under the age of 36.

Finally, the state claimed that it struck Garrett because it felt that she was untruthful when she said that she was not familiar with the area of the crime.

According to the state Garrett actually went to school in the neighborhood, but a white juror that the state accepted for service professed the same unfamiliarity, yet worked only 250 yards from the murder scene.

Now the same pattern continued when the state explained why it struck Hood?

At first the prosecutor told the trial court that, “the only thing that I was concerned about” was that Hood had an 18-year-old son who was roughly the same age as Foster, the defendant, but later the prosecutor told the trial court that Hood’s religion was the main reason for striking him.

Now perhaps the prosecutor simply misspoke when he characterized each justification as the most important, but even so neither of them stands up to scrutiny.

Hood’s son was 18, but the State accepted a white juror with three teenage sons.

The state then told the trial court that it was concerned about Hood because his son had a prior conviction for, “basically the same thing that this defendant is charged with.”

That’s nonsense.

Hood’s son had received a 12-month suspended sentence for stealing hubcaps from the car in a mall parking lot five years earlier while Foster of course was charged with the capital murder of 79-year-old widow after a brutal sexual assault.

Prosecution also said that it struck Hood because members of his church, the Church of Christ were “very, very reluctant to vote for the death penalty.”

Hood, however, said no less than four times that he could vote for the death penalty.

The state also told the trial court on multiple occasions that it treated Hood the same as three white prospective jurors who were also members of the Church of Christ, but that untrue.

Those jurors were struck for different reasons.

One was excused because she was five and a half months pregnant and other because both parties could not understand her responses to questions and still another because she had already formed an opinion on Foster’s guilt.

A note found in the prosecution’s file strengthens our conclusion that any reliance on Hood’s religion was pretextual.

That handwritten note directly contradicts the prosecution story.

It states that the Church of Christ, “doesn’t take a stand on the death penalty” and that issue “is left for each individual member”.

The document then states, “No, no black church, the word NO is capitalized, the word black is underlined.”

Even many of the secondary justifications offered by the state for striking Hood, fall apart under scrutiny.

The state claimed that it struck Hood because the defense did not ask how Foster’s age would affect Hood, or about Hood’s thoughts on the insanity defense or his exposure to pretrial publicity.

But the record clearly shows that Hood answered questions on those issues.

The state also said that it was concerned that Hood’s wife worked at a regional mental health hospital but the state had accepted a white juror for service who had worked at the same hospital.

In sum, we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.

The order of the Georgia Supreme Court is accordingly reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.