The US Supreme Court ruled on Monday in favor of a Georgia death row inmate who claimed racial bias in the jury selection process.
In Foster v. Chatman, the Court held that the Georgia Supreme Court's decision that petitioner Timothy Foster failed to show purposeful discrimination was clearly erroneous.
The case involves a black defendant and a white victim. Timothy Tyrone Foster, an African-American, is on death row in Georgia for the 1987 murder of an elderly white woman, Queen Madge White. The jury that convicted him was all white.
Twenty years after his sentence his attorneys obtained notes that the prosecution team took while it was engaged in picking a jury which included marking potential jurors who were black had a "b" written by their name. The State of Georgia struck all four black prospective jurors, and the prosecution's notes later revealed that the prospective jurors had been identified and labelled as ‘black’. The Georgia Courts found no race discrimination.
Sources also stated, “The name of each potential black juror was highlighted on four different copies of the jury list and the word ‘black was circled next to the race question on questionnaires for the black prospective jurors. Three of the prospective black jurors were identified in notes as B#1, B#2, and B#3.”
In the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court reversed:
“The State's new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck Garrett and Hood from the jury 30 years ago. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows.”
Justice Samuel Alito filed a concurring opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter. In his view, "The Court today invites state prisoners to go searching for new 'evidence' by demanding the files of the prosecutors who long ago convicted them. I cannot go along with that 'sort of sandbagging of state courts.' New evidence should not justify the re-litigation of Batson claims," Thomas wrote.
The 7-1 decision comes as a welcome relief to critics who say racial discrimination in jury selection persists across the country some 30 years after the Supreme Court ruled potential jurors cannot be struck because of race.
The Supreme Court in Batson v. Kentucky, 1986 case held that once a defendant has produced enough evidence to raise an inference that the state impermissibly excluded a juror based on race, the state must come forward with a race-neutral explanation for the exclusion.
According to Bright, the states’ race-neutral justifications didn't hold up. For example, the prosecution said one reason it struck a 34-year-old black woman was that she was near the age of Foster.
The Court heard oral arguments in the case in November. The justices questioned the lawyers, about whether they had authority to hear the case and on the race issue. Many of the justices appeared to side with the petitioner, pointing out that many of the prosecution's reasons for striking jurors appeared dubious. The court granted certiorari last May.
Read the opinion here.