Getty Images

As a jury was chosen in the 1987 Georgia murder trial of defendant Timothy Tyrone Foster, prosecutors started to eliminate jurors. By the end of jury selection, 100% of the black potential jurors were eliminated. The all-white jury eventually convicted Foster and sentenced him to die.

Thirty years later, the Supreme Court ruled Monday morning that the prosecution unconstitutionally eliminated black jurors, likely requiring a new trial for Foster.

Advertisement

Their 7-1 decision in the case, Foster v. Chatman, doesn't seem to carve out any grand new legal right for defendants. But it does correct what the justices called a "clearly erroneous" jury selection in Foster's case, and strengthens already existing protections against racist jury selections.

Foster, who is black, was accused of sexually assaulting and killing a 79-year-old white woman at age 18. During jury selection for his trial, there were 42 potential white jurors and four potential black jurors who were found to be qualified to serve on the jury.

According to memos by the prosecution that were uncovered by the defense, prosecutors wrote the letter "B" next to each potential black juror and then circled their race on the jury selection forms. They proceeded to use their peremptory strikes—their ability to excuse jurors—to remove all potential black jurors from the jury pool.

Previous Supreme Court rulings have already said that racial discrimination in jury selection is unconstitutional. The topic is governed by the Court's 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky. Now, hearings on potentially racist jury strikes are called Batson hearings.

Advertisement

But Foster's judge said that the prosecution's actions weren't racist, and the trial court and the Georgia Supreme Court previously declined Foster's appeals.

The decision released Monday was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who was joined by the Court's four liberal justices as well as Justice Anthony Kennedy. "The focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury," Roberts wrote.

Prosecutor Stephen Lanier claimed his team only used race-neutral reasons to exclude the potential black jurors, such as the fact that one juror had a cousin who was incarcerated and another had a son the same age as Foster. But the majority didn't buy it, noting that similar issues among white potential jurors did not lead to them being excused. "Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows," Roberts wrote.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion that backed up the other justices' conclusion but with slightly different reasoning, in a way that seems to be more deferential to state court.

In his lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas essentially says the Court should have kept out of this state matter. "The Supreme Court of Georgia already considered that claim and rejected it decades ago," he writes, calling the majority opinion "flabbergasting."

Thomas worries that the decision could lead to more prisoners challenging their convictions by using prosecution files as evidence.

Advertisement

But it doesn't seem that this will set a new wide-reaching precedent like Batson, the earlier case, did. Instead, Foster's case may be the most blatant example of racist jury selection that has ever come before the Supreme Court. If the justices hadn't ruled in favor of Foster, it would have made the protections against racism in our court system even weaker.

Stephen Bright, Foster's lawyer, said in a statement that the Court had "no choice" but to rule in Foster's favor based on the considerable evidence of racism.

"The decision in this case will not end discrimination in jury selection," Bright said. "The exclusion of black citizens from jury service results in juries that do not represent their communities and undermines the credibility and legitimacy of the criminal justice system.”

Advertisement

Patrick Mulvaney, another of the lawyers on Foster's team, told me that the ruling could force lower courts to take claims of racist jury selection more seriously. After the Foster ruling, lower courts will "need to really look at all the evidence in the case to determine whether there really was race discrimination."

"The court issued a very strong decision holding that this type of race discrimination is not acceptable in criminal trials," he said.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.