Supreme Court gives death row inmate new life
A Georgia death row inmate Timothy T. Foster was given new life recently when The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia prosecutors unconstitutionally barred all potential black jurors from his trial nearly 30 years ago. This case is likely to refuel contentions that the death penalty is racially discriminatory.
In a 7 to 1 verdict, Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion and reversed the conviction of Foster who was previously convicted of murdering an elderly white woman. Foster’s case was brought back to court because his lawyers obtained prosecution notes via an open records request. The prosecution notes reflected that the black jurors names were highlighted and ranked accordingly in the event “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”
This event happened one year after the Supreme Court decided Batson v. Kentucky in 1986. The Supreme Court declared such actions based upon racial discrimination were unconstitutional. In the Foster case, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” The lone dissent came from Clarence Thomas who questioned the court’s ability to ascertain the truth nearly 30 years after voir dire had been conducted.
In Foster’s case, prosecutors claim other reasons than race for their peremptory strikes. Georgia officials argued that the prosecutors were expecting to be accused of racial discrimination, so they singled out the black jurors in their notes and listed race neutral reasons for them being struck. The Supreme Court did not buy this argument. Georgia officials conceded during oral argument that the notes could be interpreted to mean otherwise and this is how seven members of The Supreme Court interpreted the evidence. Justice Elena Kagan said during oral argument that what the prosecution really wanted was “to get the black people off the jury.”
At sentencing, the prosecutor argued for the jury to impose the sentence of death in order to “deter other people out there in the projects” from committing such crimes. The residents of said projects were 90% black and the victim was white. These actions of the prosecution seemed to strike a chord with the court and carry a great deal of weight during oral arguments.
The decision in Foster would give Timothy T. Foster a path to a new trial. It also gives death penalty opponents the ammunition to move for its abolition. Last year Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced opinions that the death penalty may be unconstitutional.
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