WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court rebuked the Georgia courts Monday for ignoring blatant evidence of racial bias when prosecutors deliberately excluded blacks from a jury that would later impose the death penalty against a young black man accused of murdering a white woman.
The 7-1 decision overturned the Georgia Supreme Court and told its judges to consider whether a new trial is warranted in the nearly 30-year-old case. His death sentence could be set aside as a result.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts described as "nonsense" the prosecutors' claims that they excluded several blacks from the jury for legitimate reasons.
It is our "firm conviction," he said, that the prosecutors were "motivated in substantial part by race" when they struck two black citizens from the jury. "Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows," he said.
The Georgia case has been closely watched because it revealed new evidence from old court files on how prosecutors secretly focused on the race of the potential juries.
In 1986, the court said trial judges have a duty to prevent prosecutors from screening potential jurors based on their race, but civil rights lawyers say that approach has not always worked effectively.
Despite the new evidence, the Georgia courts refused to grant a new trial for Tyrone Foster, the man convicted of the 1986 murder.
The high court stopped short of actually overturning Foster's conviction and death sentence, and ordering a new trial. Instead, it said the Georgia Supreme Court decision rejecting his race-bias claim "is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented alone. He said Foster had confessed to the murder of the elderly white woman, and he questioned why "the court affords a death-row inmate another opportunity to relitigate his long-final conviction." Thomas said the prosecutors appeared to have rejected several black women for the jury because they believed the women would not vote for a death sentence.
But Roberts said files revealed during one of Foster's appeals showed the prosecutors had carefully tracked the blacks in the jury pool as "B 1" and "B 2" and so on. On one file was marked "NO. No black Church," suggesting blacks should be excluded if they mentioned their church.
He all but accused the state and its prosecutors of lying to cover up what they had done. "The state attempts to explain away" the newly revealed evidence is not "an example of a prosecutor merely 'misspeaking.' This was not some off-the-cuff remark. It was an intricate story expounded by the prosecution in writing, laid out over three single-spaced pages in a brief filed with the trial court," Roberts said. "The focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury."
Stephen Bright, a prominent Georgia defense attorney who appealed Foster's case, applauded Monday's ruling. But in a statement, he stressed his was the rare case where the prosecutor's secret notes came to light.
"We obtained the prosecution's notes which revealed their intent to discriminate. Usually that does not happen," he said. "The practice of discriminating in striking juries continues in courtrooms across the country. Usually courts ignore patterns of race discrimination and accept false reasons for the strikes. Even after the undeniable evidence of discrimination was presented in this case, the Georgia courts ignored it and upheld Foster's conviction and death sentence."