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Bias in Jury Selection in Criminal Trials

The Supreme Court is reconsidering a death row conviction from 30 years ago after the prosecution’s notes from the jury selection process were found to contain multiple indicators of racial bias. Despite the evidence showing illegal racial discrimination, the State of Georgia is disputing the case, alluding to the brutality of the murder and suggesting that the racial references were done to “prepare” the prosecution for future cases where racial bias may occur. 

In 1987, 19 year old African-American Timothy Tyrone Foster was sentenced to death row by an all-white jury for the murder of an 79-year old white woman who was living alone at the time. According to a CNN report, Foster “”broke her jaw, coated her face with talcum powder, sexually molested her with a salad-dressing bottle and strangled her to death.”

Lead by lawyers from the Southern State of Human Rights, the prosecution notes were obtained through an ‘open records’ request. The defense argues that the evidence of racially charged discrimination during the selection process is undeniable and goes against the historical Supreme Court ruling that potential jurors cannot be omitted because of their race.

The concerns with the jury notes:
Unjust strikings of potential jurors- used age proximity to justify striking a 34 year old black woman
Potential black jurors have a “B” noted and highlighted next to their names.
On the questionnaire sheets, the black juror’s race is often the only item circled by the prosecution.
On the list of “definite no’s”, the top five jurors are black.
The prosecution noted the name of a juror they would pick “if we had to pick a black juror”, but never actually did.

The Foster case will force legal teams to address the issue of racial bias within the jury selection process and enhances the importance of accountability for the prosecution. Depending on the outcome, the implications could be reason for defense attorneys to seek new trials for convictions where the prosecution’s actions were also seemingly racially charged. Furthermore, the overall jury selection process could be impacted and a higher standard of justification for striking jurors may be required.

It is important for defense attorneys to understand the potential extent and impact of prosecutorial discretion within the judicial process. The seemingly small decisions made at each level can be critical to a defendant’s case, as seen in the Foster case. For further reading, you can read about what U.S. News had to say about this case . In this article, the selection of a completely white jury for a black suspect is discussed.

To learn about what goes into picking a jury for a much different type of case, visit Attorney DelSignore’s page on selecting a jury for an OUI trial. Here, he goes into detail about questions and strategies he uses to pick the best jury possible for his case. All trial lawyers go through this process, and it is essential for them to get this process right.

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