Supreme Court: Prosecutors Intentionally Excluded Black Jurors In Death Row Case

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a death row inmate this morning in a landmark ruling which will see Timothy Tyrone Foster heading back to court for a new trial. The Supreme Court ruled this morning that his previous murder conviction was marred by racial bias in jury selection, during which prosecutors fought to remove jurors simply for the color of their skin.

According to CNN, prosecutors in the Foster case kept notes about prospective jurors, labeling each African American juror with a “b” beside their name to indicate the race of the potential juror.

“The focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

The Supreme Court ruling came down 7-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas being the only vote against. It’s important to note that Timothy Tyrone Foster’s conviction was not overturned. Instead, the Supreme Court ruling will allow Foster and his legal team to request a new trial, since the previous conviction was handed down after jury selection was corrupted by racial bias.

“This discrimination became apparent only because we obtained the prosecution’s notes which revealed their intent to discriminate. Usually that does not happen. The practice of discriminating in striking juries continues in courtrooms across the country. Usually courts ignore patterns of race discrimination and accept false reasons for the strikes,” said Stephen Bright, Foster’s head lawyer.

According to Justice Clarence Thomas, today’s Supreme Court decision could have far-reaching effects, which Thomas claims could damage lower courts and cause a wave of “re-litigation.”

“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,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas today.

Foster was convicted in 1987 for the murder of a 79-year old school teacher, prosecutors allege that Foster “broke her jaw, coated her face with talcum powder, sexually molested her with a salad dressing bottle and strangled her to death.”

Prosecutors maintain that their notes during jury selection were merely an attempt to preempt claims of racial bias from Foster’s legal team. In the prosecution team’s notes, black jurors were labeled with a capital “b” beside their name. Another set of notes from the prosecution team includes a coded key to identify each potential juror’s race. Five out of six jurors on a list marked “definite no’s” were identified by these markers to demonstrate their race.

The Supreme Court first ruled in 1986 that jurors cannot be excluded simply on the basis of race, and if a defendant raises enough evidence suggesting that racial bias has informed the exclusion of potential jurors in a particular case, prosecutors are required to come up with a race-neutral explanation for excluding the potential jurors.

Beth A. Burton represented the state of Georgia before the Supreme Court, and argued that each of the jurors excluded were dismissed for reasons other than their race. In one instance, a black woman was dismissed from jury selection on the grounds that she was too close in age to the defendant. Foster was 18 at the time, and the woman in question was 34. The Supreme Court ruled today that the race-neutral explanations given by the state of Georgia did not hold up, when compared to the evidence presented by Foster’s legal team, reports NBC News.

“There’s real concern that many black inmates on death row are there because of race. Today’s decision shows the court is willing to step in to correct egregious injustices even from decades ago,” wrote Tom Goldstein, an expert on the U.S. Supreme Court.

[Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images]

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