SCOTUS Nixes White Jury's Death Penalty for Black Man

29 years after Timothy Foster's sentence, court finds prosecutors kept blacks off jury for racial reasons
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 23, 2016 12:07 PM CDT
SCOTUS Nixes White Jury's Death Penalty for Black Man
This undated photo made available by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Timothy Tyrone Foster.   (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)

In a ruling Vox says "could have a big impact on racism in the justice system," the Supreme Court on Tuesday tossed a death sentence rendered almost 30 years ago against a Georgia black man, voting 7-1 that state prosecutors kept African-Americans off the jury that convicted him, the AP reports. Timothy Foster, 48, had been sent to death row for the 1986 death of Queen White, a 79-year-old white woman, by an all-white jury, Reuters notes. But two decades after his sentence, Foster's lawyers finally accessed prosecutors' jury-selection notes, and what they found was a game changer: the names of a handful of black jury candidates marked with a "B" and highlighted, and the word "black" clearly circled on juror questionnaires where race is requested, among other evidence. "The focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court's ruling, which could set the stage for a possible retrial and counted only Justice Clarence Thomas as its lone dissenter, per CNN.

The Supreme Court looked back to Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 case that found removing a juror based on race violates the 14th Amendment. The state tried to argue the prosecutors' decision at the time to strike those specific jurors was based on other factors besides race, but the court remained unswayed—mainly because of the notes brought forward by Foster's attorneys. "We have an arsenal of smoking guns in this case," Stephen Bright, Foster's lead lawyer, told the justices. Thomas argued that the Georgia court's decision that prosecutors weren't engaging in racial discrimination should have been respected. "I cannot go along with that 'sort of sandbagging of state courts,'" he wrote in his dissent. "New evidence should not justify the relitigation of Batson claims." A law professor tells CNN that Thomas' stance is "flabbergasting" and "alarmingly deferential view for a Supreme Court justice to take." (How would Trump's Supreme Court picks have voted?)

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