Racial Discrimination on Juries: Foster v. Chatham

A good thing to remember about the criminal justice system in the United States is that it is based on the adversarial system. This makes it like a football game. The two different teams are supposed to do everything that they can, within the rules, to score more points than the other side. It is up to the referees to make sure that the game is played fairly and according to the rules. In court for a criminal trial, the two teams are the prosecution and the defense, and the referee is the judge.

However, just like in football, some prosecutors are more willing than others to break the rules, or strain them in new and unforeseen ways, to make sure they come out on top and win a conviction.

This is an important aspect of the criminal justice system to remember because it explains why some prosecutors are willing to go so far to win, and lessens the surprise when they do so.

Background: The Process of Voir Dire

One of the ways that prosecutors bend the rules is in the process of voir dire, or the selection of a jury for a criminal trial.

During voir dire, members of the community are randomly called in for jury duty and are presented before the judge, prosecutor, and the defense attorney. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney have a set number of peremptory challenges that they can use to reject a jury candidate without having to state a reason.

Importantly, though, these peremptory challenges cannot be used to exclude a potential juror solely because of his or her race. However, proving that a peremptory challenge was used because of a juror’s race is difficult to prove, and some prosecutors take advantage of this.

Foster v. Chatham

Back in 1986, a black man named Timothy Foster was put on trial for murder and potential jurors were called into the court. The prosecutor on the case promptly used his peremptory challenges on all of the blacks among the jury pool. Foster was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death.

Over the course of the next decade, Foster appealed the prosecutor’s use peremptory challenges. He also requested documents from the trial through the state’s open records act, which revealed that the prosecution’s list of jurors was riddled with references to their race, and directions to exclude a list of jurors which happened to include all of the potential black jurors.

Thankfully, Foster stuck with his appeals all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which saw that there was definitive evidence of a racial motivation behind the prosecutor’s peremptory challenges.  

The Federal Criminal Law Center Fights to the End

You have a constitutional right, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, that requires the law to treat everyone equally. Being put on trial before a jury that has been kept empty of a specific race violates this right. If you think that your Equal Protection rights have been violated during a federal criminal trial and want to appeal, contact the Federal Criminal Law Center.