By Frank Kineavy
The U.S. Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of a Black Georgia death row inmate convicted in 1987 of murdering an elderly white woman, finding that prosecutors unlawfully excluded Black jurors in selecting an all-white jury.
The 7-1 Supreme Court ruling found that prosecutors “were motivated in substantial part by race” and deliberately kept Blacks off of the jury in the trial of Timothy T. Foster.
The lone dissent was from Justice Clarence Thomas, the only Black justice on the bench.
In 1987 Foster, who was 18 at the time, was tried for murder. He was convicted by an all-white jury and has since been on death row.
But nearly three decades later, notes from the jury selection were reexamined. The documents contained marks indicating all the Black jurors and a ranking that the prosecutor compiled if “it comes down to having to pick a Black juror.” Prosecutors highlighted potential jurors that had identified as “Black.” Consequently, the jury was comprised of all white men and, after a dramatic closing statement where lead prosecutor Stephen Lanier urged the jury to “deter other people out there in the projects,” Foster received the death penalty.
Currently, twenty-nine years after the decision, the case has been heard by the highest court in the land. All justices except Justice Thomas, who argued the case wasn’t in their jurisdiction, overturned the original ruling. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts, who penned the opinion for the majority, cited the violation of the 1986 Batson v. Kentucky ruling, which determined race based discrimination in a jury selection to be unconstitutional. Lanier should have been required to provide “nondiscriminatory explanation.”
Roberts unpacked each of the reasons Lanier gave for rejecting each Black juror and exposed them for being unfound and pre-textual, centering his argument around two of the rejected jurors. The first juror, Marilyn Garrett, was too young, Lanier argued. Garrett, who was 34 at the time, was passed over for eight jurors under the age of 36. Roberts states, ” Two of those white jurors served on the jury; one of those two was only 21 years old.” Lanier also accused Garrett of being unfit because she was divorced. To that, Justice Roberts pointed out the prosecutor had approved 3 of the 4 white divorcees.
Roberts also cited Eddie Hood in his opinion. The prosecutor eliminated Hoodfrom consideration because he feared the potential juror would be sympathetic to Foster because he had a son the same age as Fosterwho was convicted of a crime that, according to Lanier, was “basically the same thing that this defendant is charged with.” Meanwhile Roberts noted, Hood’s son actually received a 12-month suspended sentence after stealing hubcaps off a car.
Lanier rebutted, claiming Hood’s religious affiliation would have been a conflict of interest, but Roberts didn’t buy it, stating the record showed Lanier’s true motivation was Hood’s ethnicity, not his beliefs. Roberts concluded with “we are left with the firm conviction that the strikes of Garrett and Hood were motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.”
Justice Thomas disagreed with Justice Roberts’ opinion.
“It was the trial court that observed the [jury selection] firsthand and heard them answer the prosecution’s questions, and its evaluation of the prosecution’s credibility on this point is certainly far better than this court’s nearly 30 years later,” he wrote.
The ruling will open the door for more defendants to attempt to reopen their cases on the basis of new “evidence,” according to Thomas.
“The court today invites state prisoners to go searching for new ‘evidence’ by demanding the files of the prosecutors who long ago convicted them,” he wrote. “If those prisoners succeed, then apparently this court’s doors are open to conduct the credibility determination anew.”
A lawyer representative claims that Foster, now 48, is “entitled to a new trial at which jurors are not excluded based on race.” However, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. says Georgia state court might have the final say, which would not necessarily result in a new trial.