High Court Says Race Motivated Juror Strikes

     (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that Georgia prosecutors tried to keep black prospective jurors off the jury in the murder trial of a black man nearly 30 years ago.
     In 1987, a jury convicted Timothy Tyrone Foster for the robbery and murder of a white victim and sentenced him to death.
     At the trial level and all the way up to the Georgia Supreme Court, however, Foster argued that prosecutors struck all four black prospective jurors – providing numerous “race-neutral” reasons for doing so.
     During habeas proceedings, Foster obtained the prosecution’s notes from jury selection, which included the names of the black jurors highlighted in green marker and the word “black” circled on juror questionnaires of five black prospective jurors.
     Prosecutors also identified three black prospective jurors as “B#1,” “B#2,” and “B#3” and ranked them against each other in the event “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors,” according to the notes obtained by Foster.
     The prosecution’s strike lists also contradicted their race-neutral explanation for striking one of the prospective jurors, yet the Georgia courts in each case declined to find race discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky and denied Foster’s habeas petitions.
     Additionally, the prosecutor also argued during the penalty phase that the jury should impose a death sentence to “deter other people out there in the projects.”
     The Georgia courts “failed to give a meaningful consideration to ‘all relevant circumstances’ as Batson requires,” Foster’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court stated.
     “Neither of those courts had access to the prosecution’s notes from jury selection, which demonstrate an explicit focus on race,” the petition said. “By deferring to the prior rulings-which were based on a fraction of the evidence now available-the state habeas court necessarily failed to give full consideration to ‘all relevant circumstances’ as required by Batson.”
     Foster discovered the prosecution’s jury-selection notes through a public-records request in 2006.
     Georgia’s habeas court denied Foster’s request in 2013, finding the man had “failed to demonstrate purposeful discrimination on the basis of race” through the prosecution’s notes.
     The state’s high court refused to hear the habeas appeal in 2014.
     Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Foster’s petition for writ of certiorari – to answer the question “Did the Georgia courts err in failing to recognize race discrimination under Batson in the extraordinary circumstances of this death penalty case?”
     On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the Georgia Supreme Court’s denial of an appeal certificate and ruled 7-1 that Foster proved purposeful discrimination in the state’s removal of two black prospective jurors, Marilyn Garrett and Eddie Hood.
     “The focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “The state argues that it ‘was actively seeking a black juror’…But this claim is not credible. An ‘N’ appeared next to each of the black prospective jurors’ names on the jury venire list. An ‘N’ was also noted next to the name of each black prospective juror on the list of the 42 qualified prospective jurors; each of those names also appeared on the ‘definite NO’s’ list.”
     The majority rejected Georgia’s new argument that prosecutors “were uncertain what sort of showing might be demanded of them” after the Batson ruling, which was decided only months before Foster’s trial.
     “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. Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows,” Roberts wrote.
     Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, finding that the majority ruled “without adequately grappling with the possibility that we lack jurisdiction” and distorted the Batson standard by ruling on the merits of new evidence put forth by Foster decades after his conviction.
     “Today, without first seeking clarification from Georgia’s highest court that it decided a federal question, the court affords a death-row inmate another opportunity to reliti­gate his long-final conviction,” Thomas wrote. “In few other circumstances could I imagine the court spilling so much ink over a factbound claim arising from a state postconviction pro­ceeding.”
     Thomas also questioned the new evidence from prosecutors’ files.
     “Perhaps the court’s decision to reconsider a decades-old Batson claim based on newly discovered evidence would be less alarming if the new evidence revealed that the trial court had misjudged the prosecutors’ reasons for striking Garrett and Hood. It does not,” he wrote. “Not only is the probative value of the evidence severely limited…but also pieces of the new evidence corroborate the trial court’s conclusion that the race-neutral reasons were valid.”

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