SCOTUS rules against death sentence given by all-white jury to black man

A pedestrian walks in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. © Carlos Barria
The US Supreme Court has ruled that Georgia prosecutors in a case nearly 30 years ago acted unconstitutionally when it excluded all potential black jurors from the death penalty trial of Timothy Foster, an African American man.

In a 7-1 verdict, the high court reversed the ruling in Foster's case, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that notes made by prosecutors during jury selection show clear discrimination.

"The focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury," Roberts wrote.

The prosecution notes came to light via an open-records request 19 years after Foster's trial. Names of potential black jurors were highlighted in green on juror questionnaires, with the word "black" circled. Additional notations labeled black jurors, such as "B#1" and "B#2." A prosecution note labeled "definite NO's" included the last five potential black jurors with their own rankings, in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors."

In 1986, Foster, then 18-years old, murdered a retired school teacher during a burglary in Rome, Georgia. He later confessed to the crime, during which Foster beat and strangled Queen White, 79, to death. He also confessed to molesting White with a salad dressing bottle. In 1987, he was convicted of capital murder by an all-white jury that sentenced him to death.

The prosecution team was led by then-Floyd County District Attorney Steve Lanier. In Foster v. Chatman, Foster's attorneys argued that Lanier's team intentionally purged potential black jurors, in violation of a 1986 US Supreme Court ruling in the case Batson v. Kentucky that said removing a potential juror because of race was unconstitutional.

In 1999, Foster's claims of intellectual disability were rejected by a trial court and the Georgia Supreme Court. In a later state habeas proceeding, Foster renewed his Batson claim, buttressed by prosecution notes from Foster's original trial that were obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act.

The Georgia Supreme Court denied Foster's call for appeal, saying his claim had no "arguable merit." Foster's appeal later reached the US Supreme Court in November 2015.

Roberts' opinion rejected the state of Georgia's claim that the prosecution's focus on black jurors was not an attempt to exclude them but to ensure the prosecution was “thoughtful and non-discriminatory in [its] consideration of black prospective jurors [and] to develop and maintain detailed information on those prospective jurors in order to properly defend against any suggestion  that  decisions regarding [its] selections were pretextual.”

Roberts wrote that this argument "falls flat."

"The contents of the prosecution’s file… plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a 'color-blind' manner," he wrote.

During oral arguments before the high court, Georgia Deputy Attorney General Beth Burton acknowledged that the prosecution’s notes "certainly can be interpreted in two ways." Yet during Foster's sentencing, then-DA Lanier advised the jury to seek the death penalty "to deter other people out there in the projects," where most residents were black.

Justice Elena Kagan said during the November oral arguments that "what it really was, was they wanted to get the black people off the jury," according to USA Today.

Justice Clarence Thomas, the only black justice on the Supreme Court, was the only dissenter in the 7-1 verdict.

"Foster's new evidence does not justify this court's reassessment of who was telling the truth nearly three decades removed from voir dire," Thomas wrote in a dissenting opinion.

The verdict will likely lead to a new trial for Foster.