Timothy Foster has spent almost 30 years on Georgia’s death row. On Monday, his lawyer will appear before the Supreme Court to fight for his life.
That’s because Foster v. Chatman, a high-profile case about racism in jury selection, is really not a case about racism in jury selection. It’s a case about racism in the application of the death penalty.
Consider what Stephen Lanier, the prosecutor who tried Foster in 1987, told the all-white jury who heard the case. During the penalty phase of the trial, he said a death sentence was appropriate for Foster to send a message “to other people out there in the projects.” Foster lived in government housing, and about 90 percent of his neighbors were black.
Or ponder a psychiatrist’s testimony on Foster’s behalf, who found he “was in the borderline range for intellectual disability” — with an IQ range between 58 and 80 his entire life. The jury rejected it and voted for death anyway.
Or the very length of time Foster has spent on death row, or the reality he is only one of the 56 percent of those awaiting execution who are people of color, according to a recent NAACP Legal Defense Fund report.
There’s a lot of things inherently suspect with the Foster case — and the capital system in general — and yet the Supreme Court on Monday will only be confronting the very limited issue of whether prosecutors improperly excluded on the basis of race all blacks who were perfectly capable of sitting in Foster’s trial. This is a real problem that’s still very much alive today.
Foster v. Chatman has been styled that way because that’s how advocates chip away at the death penalty these days — by showing how it’s unconstitutionally stacked against some defendants and not others….
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