Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageDeath row inmate suffered race bias: top US court

By S├ębastien Blanc (AFP)     May 23, 2016 in World

The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of an African American death row inmate who accused prosecutors of bias for selecting an all-white jury that convicted him of murder.

In a 7-1 vote, the justices struck down a Georgia Supreme Court ruling denying Timothy Foster an appeal of his death sentence for the 1986 murder of an elderly white woman.

Only conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's sole African American member, dissented.

"This means that Timothy Foster is entitled to a new trial at which jurors are not excluded based on race," his lawyers said in a statement.

The decision, coming nearly 30 years after Foster's conviction, reinforces accusations by death penalty opponents that racism continues to affect jury selection in the United States.

Foster's lawyers argued that prosecutors had maneuvered to keep blacks off the jury, presenting as evidence prosecutor's notes at a November 2015 Supreme Court hearing.

The notes, obtained in 2006, included a list of prospective jurors with the handwritten letter "B" next to the names of African Americans on the list.

They were rejected for the jury under a selection process that allows prosecutors to block, or "strike," a certain number of potential jurors.

The prosecutors drew up a list of six prospective jurors to be struck from the panel, Foster's lawyer told the court: five were black and one opposed the death penalty.

- 'Arresting' references to race -

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the prosecution's notes "plainly belie the state's claim that it exercised its strikes in a 'color-blind' manner."

"The sheer number of references to race in that file is arresting," he wrote.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives for President Barack Obama's State of the Unio...
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives for President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014
Larry Downing, POOL/AFP/File

The state of Georgia had vehemently defended the prosecutors, arguing that they had documented their actions in order to show they were being thoughtful and not discriminatory in considering prospective black jurors.

But the court's majority said the state's argument "reeks of afterthought," saying it had never been raised before in the case's 30-year history.

"The focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury," Roberts wrote.

"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," the opinion said, referring to two African American potential jurors, Marilyn Garret and Eddie Hood.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 for it to be unconstitutional to take race into account when excluding potential jurors.

The court's decision reverses a Georgia state supreme court order denying Foster appellate review of his death sentence, and remands the case "for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

Christina Swarns, attorney for the prominent civil rights organization NAACP, welcomed the decision, saying the justices "properly reaffirmed the longstanding principle that racial bias in jury selection is unacceptable under the US Constitution."

- Thomas dissents -

Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White, a 79-year-old retired school teacher whom he sexually assaulted and killed in her home in Rome, Georgia in August 1986.

Now 48, he was 18 at the time of the killing.

In his dissent, Thomas said the Supreme Court should have sought clarification from the state supreme court rather than overrule it.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center...
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC
Chip Somodevilla, Getty/AFP/File

In doing so, "the court affords a death-row inmate another opportunity to relitigate his long-final conviction," he said.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion that, while agreeing with the majority's conclusion, cautioned that it was important not to "lightly brush aside" the state's legitimate interest in a process that "militates against repetitive litigation and endless delay."

However, Foster's lawyer Stephen Bright said the evidence gave the court no choice but to find that prosecutors intentionally discriminated in striking black prospective jurors.

They "lied about it by giving false reasons for their strikes when the real reason was race," he said in a statement.

"The exclusion of black citizens from jury service results in juries that do not represent their communities," he added, "and undermines the credibility and legitimacy of the criminal justice system."

A recent survey in a parish in Louisiana, another southern state, showed prosecutors were three times as likely to strike black prospective jurors than white ones.

More about US, Court, Race, deathpenalty
More news from
Latest News
Top News