In a 7-1 ruling, the court handed a victory to inmate Timothy Foster, 48, who asserted prosecutorial misconduct after he was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1986 murder of Queen White, a 79-year-old retired schoolteacher.
The justices threw out Foster's conviction after decades on death row. He could still potentially face a retrial.
During jury selection, all four black members of the pool of potential jurors were removed by prosecutors, who gave reasons not related to race for their decision to exclude them. Only white jurors were selected for the panel that ended up convicting Foster and sentencing him to death.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court's majority, wrote that prosecution notes introduced into evidence "plainly belie the state's claim that it exercised its strikes (removing a potential juror) in a 'color blind' manner."
At the time of the trial, Foster's legal arguments over jury selection failed. It was only in 2006 that his lawyers obtained access to the prosecution's jury selection notes, which showed that the race of the black potential jurors was highlighted, indicating "an explicit reliance on race," according to Foster's attorneys.
The notes showed that the prosecution marked the names of the black prospective jurors with a "B," highlighted them in green and circled the word "black" next to the race question on juror questionnaires.
The Supreme Court reached the conclusion that the state's prosecutors "were motivated in substantial part by race" when 2 of the potential jurors were excluded, Roberts wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative and the only black member of the court, was the sole dissenter.
A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it unlawful to take race into account when excluding potential jurors from a trial.
Prosecutors say Foster, 18 at the time of the crime, broke into White's home in the middle of the night, broke her jaw and sexually molested the elderly woman before strangling her and stealing items from her house.
Source: Reuters, May 23, 2016
Supreme Court gives black death-row inmate new life
The Supreme Court gave a black death-row prisoner new life Monday by ruling that prosecutors unconstitutionally barred all potential black jurors from his trial nearly 30 years ago.
The 7-1 verdict, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, reversed the conviction of Georgia inmate Timothy Foster for the murder of an elderly white woman and is likely to fuel contentions from death penalty opponents that capital punishment is racially discriminatory.
What brought Foster's case back to court after 3 decades was a series of prosecution notes obtained by defense lawyers through an open-records request. While jurors were being picked, prosecutors had highlighted the names of African Americans, circled the word "black" on questionnaires, and added notations such as "B#1" and "B#2." On a sheet labeled "definite NO's," they put the last five blacks in the jury pool on top. And they ranked them in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors."
This happened just a year after the Supreme Court had declared such actions unconstitutional. Civil rights groups say discriminatory practices in jury selection have survived for 30 years despite the Supreme Court's 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky.
"The focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury," Roberts wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's lone African American member, cast the lone dissent. "Foster's new evidence does not justify this court's reassessment of who was telling the truth nearly three decades removed from voir dire," he said.
In Foster's case, prosecutors claimed other reasons for the peremptory strikes. Georgia officials had told the court that prosecutors were expecting to be accused of racial discrimination, so they singled out potential black jurors in their notes and listed several race-neutral reasons for opposing each one. But Deputy Attorney General Beth Burton acknowledged during oral arguments in November that the prosecutors' notes "certainly can be interpreted in two ways."
At sentencing, the prosecutor urged the jury to impose death in order to "deter other people out there in the projects" - where 90% of the residents were black. Justice Elena Kagan said during oral argument, "what it really was, was they wanted to get the black people off the jury."
Justice Anthony Kennedy said prosecutors wrongly interpreted the high court's dictate about racial discrimination. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito noted prosecutors objected to some of the black jurors because they were women or relatively young, but neither justice refuted the emphasis on race.
The finding that Foster's constitutional rights were violated gives him a clear path to a new trial. More important, it could impact the way prosecutors, defense attorneys and trial judges handle jury selection in the future. And because Foster received a death sentence, it could bolster arguments voiced last year by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg that the death penalty itself may be unconstitutional.
A recent study by the anti-death-penalty group Reprieve Australia showed that prosecutors in Caddo Parish, La., struck would-be jurors who were black 3 times as often as others. Another study in North Carolina in 2012 found blacks were twice as likely to be struck from juries by prosecutors. And in Houston County, Ala., from 2005 to 2009, prosecutors removed 80% of blacks qualified for jury duty, producing juries with either one black or none at all.
Source: USA Today, May 23, 2016