Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Ga. justice system fails to produce justice

In a blistering 7-1 ruling Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors had denied a Georgia man his constitutional right to a jury by his peers. In overturning the verdict against Timothy Foster, the high court ruled that prosecutors had systematically eliminated all potential black jurors in Foster's case, in effect rigging the jury and ensuring that Foster would be judged by an all-white jury.

That jury found Foster guilty of murder, and to be honest they had no choice. The physical evidence and testimony, including a taped confession, was so overwhelming that the verdict was never in doubt.  That remains true even in a retrial. The central question had always been whether the jury would be willing to sentence Foster to death, and with the illegal use of race, prosecutors helped to ensure that they did.

That all took place in 1988. Years later, when Foster's attorneys filed an open-records request for the prosecutors' files in the case, they found overwhelming evidence of discrimination. Multiple documents in the file made it clear that prosecutors had identified potential jurors by race and had made every effort to ensure that no black Georgian would help sit in judgment of Foster.

As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion:

"The contents of the prosecution’s file ... plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a 'color-blind' manner. The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting. ... the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury."

Again, to be honest, that happens all the time in courtrooms across this country. What makes the Foster case unique is that prosecutors left such clear evidence of their manipulation.

Two other aspects of the case may be even more troubling. In his opinion, Roberts basically accuses former Floyd County District Attorney Stephen Lanier of lying to the court repeatedly about what he had done and why. The many excuses that were offered by Lanier for striking every black person from the jury pool were, in Roberts' mind, "not credible," "implausible and fantastic", had "no grounding in fact" and amounted to multiple "misrepresentations of the record" and "mischaracterization."

Furthermore, when Georgia courts up to and including the state Supreme Court had been asked to rule on appeals filed by Foster's attorney, they repeatedly ignored the very same evidence that seven of eight U.S. Supreme Court justices this week found so compelling. It was more important to Georgia judges not to allow the reopening of an old case than it was to look honestly at the evidence before them, and the result is an embarrassment to the state's judicial system.

That reluctance to reconsider old cases is understandable to a point -- as a rule, cases once decided should stay decided. But that rule should not interfere with basic justice. Consider the troubling case of Sandeep Bharadia, sentenced in 2003 to life in prison for aggravated sexual battery and burglary despite eyewitness claims that he had been nowhere near the scene.

Long after his conviction in that case, DNA evidence was discovered on gloves used in that attack that suggests strongly that Bharadia is innocent, and that another man committed the heinous crime. In fact, one Georgia court has already agreed that the new evidence "is so material that it would probably produce a different verdict" if the case were reopened.

Strong evidence that an innocent man was put away for life ought to be enough to reopen the case, right? Wrong. So far, Georgia courts have refused to allow that reopening. Judges have ruled that Bharadia's attorneys in his original trial should have pressed for DNA testing of the gloves. Their failure to do so means that Bharadia has to spend the rest of his life in prison, even though he is probably innocent.

That's the scandalous act of a system more interested in protecting its own prerogatives than in its actual duty of seeking justice.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.