The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that prosecutors purposefully and illegally struck potential black jurors on account of their race in a Floyd County death-penalty trial almost three decades ago.
The 7-1 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, all but clears the way for
death-row inmate Timothy Tyrone Foster to get a new trial. During arguments on the case last November, a majority of the court’s justices appeared ready to say race was a primary reason prosecutors struck all the prospective African-American jurors during jury selection at the trial almost three decades ago.
This allowed an all-white jury to decide Foster’s fate. During closing arguments, then-District Attorney Stephen Lanier urged jurors to sentence Foster to death “to deter other people out there in the projects.”
Foster, who is African-American, was sentenced to death for sexually assaulting and then killing Queen Madge White, a 79-year-old retired elementary school teacher, at her home in August 1986.
Almost two decades later, Foster’s new lawyers obtained the notes the prosecution team compiled as it prepared to pick the jury. On the lists of prospective jurors, the prosecutors and investigators highlighted all the African-American jurors with a green marker. The notes also referred to black jurors as “B#1,” “B#2” and “B#3.”
Another note listed six “definite NO’s,” the top five of which were the remaining black jurors at that time.
Foster’s lawyer, Stephen Bright, had argued that the prosecution’s conduct ran afoul of Batson v. Kentucky, a high court ruling that overturned a conviction after all African-American jurors were struck from hearing the case of a black man, James K. Batson, accused of burglary and receiving stolen goods. When it issued the Batson decision in 1986, the court said its decision was necessary to strengthen the public’s respect for the criminal justice system and the rule of law.
On Monday, Bright said the high court’s ruling “makes it quite clear that this kind of race discrimination is not to be tolerated.”
“The Georgia courts did not find any problem with what happened, which is sobering,” he said. “One hopes there will be greater vigilence in dealing with race discrimination in future cases.”