US supreme court voids Georgia man's death sentence over racial bias on jury

Justices rule 7-1 in favor of Timothy Tyrone Foster and find prosecutors kept African Americans off jury that convicted him of killing a white woman

The US supreme court on Monday delivered a stinging rebuke to the southern state of Georgia for having concocted an all-white jury to send a black man to death row, ruling that prosecutors intentionally skewed the process by striking out all prospective black jurors in an act of blatant racial discrimination.

The eight justices on the nation’s highest court voted by 7-1 to throw out the death sentence of Timothy Tyrone Foster and effectively order a retrial in a case that has been described as one of the most visibly egregious acts of racial discrimination in the American court system for many years.

The court’s opinion, written by chief justice John Roberts, is scathing in its portrayal of how the state of Georgia conducted the original jury selection in 1987, as well as being deeply critical of state officials for continuing up to the present day to insist that the prosecution was entirely “color-blind”.

“Prosecutors were motivated in substantial party by race,” Roberts wrote. The court found that at least two black jurors had been struck off on grounds of race alone, prompting Roberts’ curt remark: “Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the constitution allows.”

The act of conscious discrimination that put Foster on death row for the 1986 murder of Queen Madge White, a 70-year-old widow in Rome, Georgia, was all the more chilling because it would never have come to light without the diligence of a team of lawyers at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Led by Stephen Bright, a fellow of Yale law school and president of the center, they obtained the prosecution file from the trial through a freedom of information request.

It turned out to contain that most rare and valuable thing: incontrovertible written proof of the virulent racial discrimination that still plagues the American court system, particularly in the deep south, and yet is usually carefully hidden from sight.

The file included the list of potential jurors that prosecutors had used – and, crucially, annotated – during the jury selection process.

Each of the black men and women on the list had had their names highlighted with a green-yellow marker pen, with a legend that suggested the color “represents blacks”. Lest there was any doubt, the letter “B” was also placed beside the entries for African American potential jurors, with three of them further labelled “B#1”, “B#2, and “B#3”. Five prospective black jurors also had their race circled on questionnaires they filled out.

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Advisory Committee: Yves Berthelot (France),  PV Rajagopal (India), Vandana Shiva (India), Oliver de Schutter (Belgium), Mazide N’Diaye (Senegal), Gabriela Monteiro (Brazil), Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia), Anne Pearson (Canada), Liz Theoharis (USA), Sulak Sivaraksa (Thailand), Jagat Basnet (Nepal), Miloon Kothari (India),  Irene Santiago (Philippines), Arsen Kharatyan (Armenia), Margrit Hugentobler (Switzerland), Jill Carr-Harris (Canada/India), Reva Joshee (Canada), Sonia Deotto (Mexico/Italy),Benjamin Joyeux (Geneva/France), Aneesh Thillenkery, Ramesh Sharma, Ran Singh (India)