SCOTUS rules 7-1 in Foster v Georgia that the defendant’s conviction in 1986 was a “blatant prosecutorial misconduct,” violates 6th amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday morning to give Georgia inmate Timothy Foster new life by finding that prosecutors unconstitutionally barred any potential black jurors from serving on his trial almost 30 years ago.
The 7-1 verdict was written by Chief Justice John Roberts and immediately reversed the defendant’s conviction, who had been found guilty and sentenced to death in the murder of an elderly white woman in 1987. The case upholds longstanding claims from civil rights activists that jury discrimination in cases involving African Americans – particular in regards to crimes potentially subject to capital punishment – is commonplace in the courtroom and leads to a disproportionate number of minorities receiving the death penalty as compared to white counterparts convicted of similar crimes.
Foster’s case was brought to the highest court in the land after a series of prosecution notes obtained by defense attorneys through open records request showed that prosecutors had consistently highlighted the names of prospective and qualified African American jurors, circling the word “black” on questionnaires and adding notations “B#1” and “B#2.”
On a sheet labeled, “definite No’s,” at least five African Americans in the jury pool were atop the list, even ranked in the event that “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”
Ironically, one year prior to the case in 1986 the Supreme Court ruled such activity illegal in Batson v Kentucky, though activists have maintained for years that the practice is still in continuation.
“The focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury,” Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “The contents of the prosecution’s file, plainly belie the State’s claims that it excercised its strikes in a ‘color blind’ manner. The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting.”
Clarence Thomas cast the lone dissenting vote, writing “Foster’s new evidence does not justify this court’s reassessment of who was telling the truth nearly three decades removed from voir dire.”
At the time of Foster’s sentencing, the prosecutor on the case urged the jury to impose the death penalty in order to “deter other people out there in the projects,” a racially charged sentiment aimed at sending a message to the local black community. “What is really was,” Justice Elena Kagan said during the oral argument, “was they wanted to get the black people off the jury.”
SCOTUS’ ruling should pave the way towards a new trial for Foster and, more consequentially, it may hopefully impact the way prosecutors, defense attorneys, and trial judges handle jury selection in the future, where qualified black jurors in some instances are dismissed from criminal trials involving black defendants at rates upwards of 80% of the time.
It could also lead potentially lead to renewed strength in arguing that the death penalty itself may be unconstitutional due to its biased implementation across racial, geographic, and socioeconomic lines, positions strongly advocated by Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.