Supreme Court Decides Foster v. Chatman

Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP

On May 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Foster v. Chatman, No. 14-8349, holding that it was clearly erroneous for a state habeas court to decide that a criminal defendant failed to show purposeful discrimination when prosecutors struck all four black prospective jurors qualified to serve on the jury and the defendant produced evidence that the prosecutors had targeted black prospective jurors for peremptory challenges.

Timothy Foster was charged with capital murder in Georgia in 1986. Of the 42 prospective jurors that the trial court deemed qualified, five were black. One of the black jurors was excused before the parties exercised their peremptory challenges, leaving four black prospective jurors. The State exercised nine of the 10 peremptory strikes it was allotted; four of them were used to strike all of the prospective jurors who were black. Foster raised a Batson challenge, arguing that the State excluded the black prospective jurors because of their race. The trial court denied the challenge. Foster was convicted and sentenced to death. The Georgia appellate courts rejected Foster’s Batson challenge on direct appeal.

Later, Foster sought a writ of habeas corpus in Georgia state court based on his Batson claim. During his state habeas proceedings, Foster obtained documents relating to the State’s jury selection at his trial. That evidence included: (1) copies of the jury venire list, with the names of all black prospective jurors highlighted in green with a legend indicating that green highlighting “represents Blacks”; (2) a draft affidavit detailing a State investigator’s views on 10 black prospective jurors, stating: “If it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors, [this one] might be okay”; (3) handwritten notes on three black prospective jurors denoting those individuals as “B#1,” “B#2,” and “B#3”; (4) lists of the qualified jurors remaining after voir dire with “N” (for “no”) appearing next to the names of all qualified black prospective jurors; (5) a document titled “definite NO’s” listing six names, the first five of which were the qualified black prospective jurors; (6) a document titled “Church of Christ” with the notation “NO. No Black Church”; and (7) copies of the questionnaires from several black prospective jurors on which the juror’s response indicating his or her race had been circled.

The state habeas court denied relief, concluding that Foster’s Batson claim was barred by res judicata because it had been raised and litigated on direct appeal, and because Foster had failed to demonstrate purposeful discrimination. The Georgia Supreme Court denied Foster the Certificate of Probable Cause necessary for him to file an appeal on the basis that his claim had no arguable merit.

The Supreme Court began by holding that it had jurisdiction to review the judgment. The Court rejected the notion that it lacked jurisdiction because the judgment rested on an adequate and independent state law ground, holding that the state court’s reference to res judicata was not an independent state-law ground because the court proceeded to address and resolve the Batson claim on the merits.

The Court then went on to address the merits of Foster’s Batson claim, concluding that the state habeas court’s decision that Foster failed to show purposeful discrimination was clearly erroneous. The Court focused its analysis on two of the black prospective jurors, and generally concluded that the evidence from the prosecutor’s files “plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a ‘color-blind’ manner” and that “the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” The State argued that it focused on prospective jurors’ race because it “was actively seeking a black juror,” but the Court stated: “[T]his claim is not credible. The Court reversed the state court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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