Supreme Court: Blacks were unconstitutionally excluded from Ga. jury

Supreme Court: Blacks were unconstitutionally excluded from Ga. jury
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Monday gave a Georgia man another chance to overturn his death penalty sentence, ruling 7-1 that there was a “concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury” in his capital murder trial. 

Timothy Foster was sentenced to the death penalty after he confessed to killing 79-year-old Queen Madge White, a widow whom police found dead on the floor of her home in 1986. White had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Her home had also been burglarized.

Decades after his conviction and death sentence, Foster used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain copies of the prosecution’s file. In it, he found that the attorneys had identified which prospective jurors were black.  

Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the prosecutors were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent" when they struck all four of the prospective black jurors from serving on Foster’s trial.

“Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows,“ he wrote.

The decision, however, does not overturn Foster’s conviction. It instead forces the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether this finding of discrimination in the jury selection process warrants relief. 

Foster’s attorney Stephen Bright, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, believes the court’s ruling requires the conviction and death sentence to be set aside.

“Today the U.S. Supreme Court found that prosecutors at Timothy Foster’s capital trial intentionally discriminated in striking black prospective jurors during jury selection and lied about it by giving false reasons for their strikes when the real reason was race,” he said in a statement.

“The Court had no choice. The prosecution’s notes which were discovered and introduced as evidence left no doubt that the strikes were motivated by race to get an all-white jury.” 

Justice Clarence Thomas was the court’s lone dissent in this case. He scolded the court for failing to seek clarification from Georgia’s highest court before giving a death-row inmate another opportunity to re-litigate his conviction.

“It was the trial court that observed the veniremen firsthand and its evaluation of the prosecution’s credibility on this point is certainly far better than this court’s nearly 30 years later,” he said.