The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to let stand an egregious violation of a citizen’s right to a fair trial. In a 7-1 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with defense attorneys for Georgia death row inmate Timothy Tyrone Foster that prosecutors kept blacks off his jury, in clear violation of his rights.
Foster was convicted three decades ago by an all-white jury of murdering a white woman. His lawyers were able to petition successfully for the prosecution’s notes that laid bare its strategy of peremptory strikes and challenges against all of the potential black jurors. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative who is often criticized for being naive about the impact of race on American life, agreed that “prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race.” Georgia argued that there was no evidence that Foster was ever discriminated against, despite being convicted by an all-white jury and even after the prosecutors’ notes were made public.
When the case was argued before the Supreme Court last fall, Justice Elena Kagan commented it seemed as clear a violation “as a court is ever going to see.” It was a hint of what the justices said this week, with Justice Clarence Thomas as the lone dissenter. Without explaining his logic, the court’s only black justice said he would have deferred to the state judges who rejected Foster’s claims. Justice Thomas sees no discrimination here. Fortunately, he is a minority of one.
The Supreme Court ordered the case returned to state court, where Foster’s lawyers will call for a new trial. The court’s decision doesn’t take away lawyers’ ability to use peremptory strikes or limit its prerogative to reject jurors, but it is clear that the highest court in the land won’t look kindly upon a jury decision that looks like naked bias and racial discrimination.
The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 25.