The chances of getting a case heard in the highest court in the land are not very high. So when a case is accepted for hearing by the United States Supreme Court, the justices have a very good reason for doing so. Most people might not realize that although our high court has some of the hardest working judges in the country, the number of cases accepted is relatively small. Most cases are quite complex and require significant briefing and hearing prior to the Court’s ruling. In general, the Court is not required to hear most cases it is presented for review. There are few exceptions to this. Those seeking the Court’s review file what is called a petition for a writ of certiorari in which a party may ask the Court to hear a case. Of the 7,000 such petitions presented to the Court, only about 100-150 are accepted for review each year. Although personal injury, rather than criminal law is our area of law practice, we keep up generally on other areas of the law and particularly cases that are before the United States Supreme Court.
That is why it is significant that the Supreme Court has accepted a Georgia death penalty case for review. In the case, Mr. Timothy Foster was convicted of assaulting and then murdering an elderly woman in her home in Rome, Georgia in 1986. Foster, who later confessed to the murders after items belonging to the victim were found in his home, was sentenced to death in 1987. However, his lawyers petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a hearing on the issue of racial bias in the selection of the jury as every potential black juror was eliminated from the jury of this defendant who also is black.
Foster went to trial the year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to exclude jurors for reasons having to do with similarities (in that case, the same race) to the defendant. In a now-famous case entitled Batson v. Kentucky, the Court determined that peremptory challenges to potential jurors cannot be based on race. If there is no cause for challenging a juror for other reasons, such as bias, counsel may not remove potential jurors from hearing a case based on demographic similarities to the defendant. In Batson, all potential jurors who happened to be black were removed from hearing a black defendant’s murder case. The Court said that this violates the United States Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The Batson Rule has become an essential part of jury selection in America.
In the Georgia case, Foster’s legal team alleged that an investigator on the case had created notes about certain jurors highlighting the “black” responses to the question of race in jury questionnaires filled out by potential jurors. These notes also indicated a priority list for potential black jurors. Although lawyers often prioritize which potential jurors they would like to see on the jury in order of preference during the process, it is not permissible to base this on race alone. Ultimately, all four potential jurors who were black were challenged by the prosecution and were not seated to hear the case. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the prosecutors that there were other reasons for removing these jurors that did not include consideration of race.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will be important in reviewing the law in the area of jury selection. We will let you know the outcome of the case which will not be known for some time as the next term does not begin until October of this year.
At Scholle Law, we are committed to ensuring that injured victims are protected after an accident or injury. We specialize in complex areas of the law and medicine, such as traumatic brain injury and we are here to assist you and your family in your case. We have represented hundreds of accident victims with compassion and skill. Please contact us for a free evaluation of your case.