WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday held that prosecutors in Timothy Tyrone Foster's 1987 murder trial unconstitutionally kept black people off the jury, sending the case — which had sent Foster to death row — back to the Georgia courts for further review.
"Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution
allows," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for six of the eight members of the court.
While such a finding ordinarily means the conviction and sentence are tossed out, requiring a new trial, one justice on Monday suggested Georgia officials could still argue that Foster's claim is barred under state rules.
The court applied a 1986 decision, Batson v. Kentucky, in holding that there was impermissible racial discrimination in jury selection in Foster's capital trial for the sexual assault and killing of Queen Madge White. Foster was sentenced to death by the all-white jury that heard his case. Several potential jurors who were black were rejected for the jury, a decision that recently released documents called into question and that led to Foster's challenge.
The state trial court denied Foster's request for a new trial, finding that his Batson claim was barred because it had been raised previously but also that it failed because it was "without merit." The Georgia Supreme Court denied his appeal, a decision that the U.S. Supreme Court held today was a decision, under state law, that there was no "arguable merit" to Foster's claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the new evidence and the question of whether the potential jurors had been kept off the jury because of race. Stephen Bright from the Southern Center for Human Rights argued Foster's case before the court.
"The contents of the prosecution’s file, however, plainly belie the State’s claim that it exercised its strikes in a 'color-blind' manner," Roberts wrote for the court, reversing the order of the Georgia Supreme Court, which had denied Foster's appeal.
The remedy for a finding of a Batson violation is to toss out the conviction and sentence handed down by that jury and order a new trial, but Justice Samuel Alito, who joined the court's judgment, noted that there could still be an argument to be made by the state in support of Foster's conviction and sentence.
"On remand, the Georgia Supreme Court is bound to accept that evaluation of the federal question, but whether that conclusion justifies relief under state res judicata law is a matter for that court to decide," Alito wrote.
"Res judicata" is the legal term barring parties from relitigating issues previously argued by those parties. Here, Foster had unsuccessfully raised a Batson challenge before the new documents had been found.
It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would attempt to argue that or whether they would deal with the U.S. Supreme Court's holding that race had been used unconstitutionally in the selection of Foster's jury.
Foster's lawyers maintain that, regardless of what Alito wrote, the conviction and sentence must now be tossed out. "I believe a Batson violation requires vacating the conviction and sentence," Bright told BuzzFeed News after the decision came down.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court's decision, finding both that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and disagreeing with the court's decision on the merits of the Batson challenge.