In a landmark 7-1 decision earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court voided a nearly 30-year-old murder conviction of a black inmate in Georgia due to prosecutors’ efforts to keep black jurors from hearing the case.
Timothy Tyrone Foster, an 18-year-old youth with mental disabilities (which would eventually lead a state court to find his death sentence should not be carried out), was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for sexually assaulting and fatally strangling an elderly white woman.
Foster confessed to the crime, and at trial, his lawyers focused on their client’s personal difficulties. But they also objected to the absence of blacks on the jury; prosecutors used peremptory challenges to exclude four potential black jurors. Despite Foster’s legal challenge, the trial judge accepted the prosecutors’ explanations of why their actions were not discriminatory, as did a state appeals court.
In 2006, a full 19 years after Foster’s conviction, his lawyers used the state’s Open Records Act to access the prosecution team’s files from his trial. Unusually detailed records presented a strong showing the prosecutors had strenuously worked to ensure an all-white jury.
But the Georgia appellate court considering a renewed challenge to Foster’s conviction said the trial court had properly followed the requirements set out in a Supreme Court decision (Batson v. Kentucky), handed down about a year earlier before Foster’s trial. In Batson, the Supreme Court had held racial bias in jury selection violated constitutional equal protection rights, and set out a process for appellate courts to use in reviewing such bias claims.
Defending its appellate review of Foster’s appeal, Georgia claimed its courts had properly reviewed prosecutors’ rationales for excluding black potential jurors. But when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the view there was sharply different. During oral argument last November, Justice Elena Kagan opined it would be hard to imagine a clearer case of racially biased jury selection than Thomas trial.
In its nearly unanimous Foster v. Chatham decision voiding Foster’s conviction and ordering Georgia to re-examine whether racial basis affected jury selection, the Supreme Court made short work of prosecutors’ rationales on their supposedly nondiscriminatory reasons for removing every potentially eligible black juror. Its decision noted the prosecutors’ trial files focused almost entirely on potential black jurors, and the factors identified as reasons for excluding them as jurors were not invoked when applicable to white prospective jurors.
Instead, Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion found a “concerted effort” to keep black jurors off Foster’s trial. The lone dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas, who argued against reopening the case so long after the original verdict, saying he would have let stand the decisions of the state judges who had been closest to the case. (Justice Samuel Alito joined the majority decision, but also submitted a concurring opinion questioning the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to take up the case, even though he saw the Georgia verdict as having violated the Batson decision.)
The Supreme Court’s action May 23 technically sends the case back to the Georgia Supreme Court for further review but seems likely to mean, at a minimum, a new trial for Foster. Georgia’s attorney general declined to comment on the decision.