The Supreme Court is reviewing the appeal of Timothy Foster's 1987 murder trial in Rome, Georgia. The appeal was made on the grounds that there was racial prejudice among an all-white jury in sentencing Foster, who is African-American, to death.
During jury selection, among the 95 potential jurors, only 10 were black. As the selection process continued, prosecutors would highlight candidates' names and circle the word “black” on their questionnaires. After more than half of the pool had been excused, each side was allowed to make a set number of additional peremptory challenges. On a separate sheet labeled “definite NO’s,” prosecutors listed the five remaining black prospects on top and ranked them in case it came down to having to pick one.
Foster was quickly convicted of murdering an elderly white woman. The prosecutor urged the all-white jury to sentence him to death to discourage others who come from the projects—where 90% are black residents.
A new study by the group Reprieve Australia showed that prosecutors in Caddo Parish, LA., excused would-be jurors who were black three times as often as others. It is also interesting to note that, in 200 verdicts in a 10-yer period ending in 2012, juries with fewer than three blacks did not acquit any defendants. When five or more blacks participated, the acquittal rate was 19%.
The Foster case is significant because if the Supreme Court finds that Foster's constitutional rights were violated and orders that he be given a new trial, this ruling could impact the way jury selection is handled in the future. This case also highlights the concerns voiced by two justices that the death penalty itself may be unconstitutional—due to institutional racial bias, as exemplified in this case and as shown throughout the criminal justice system in the United States. There is no question that institutional racism has been at play in our criminal justice system since Columbus landed on our shores and has proliferated many fold following the institution of African slave labor in the Americas. It's time to call it like it is and put an end to it.