By The Editorial Board, nytimes.com
In 1987, Timothy Tyrone Foster, an 18-year-old black man from Georgia, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a 79-year-old white woman named Queen Madge White.
On Monday, the Supreme Court invalidated Mr. Foster’s conviction and sentence because prosecutors had struck every black prospective juror at his trial — a violation of his constitutional rights. The ruling sends the case back to the Georgia courts, where the state may choose to retry Mr. Foster.
This was clearly the correct result. The prosecutors in Mr. Foster’s case kept notes that served as a remarkably explicit road map of how to discriminate in jury selection. For example, they highlighted the names of black prospective jurors on one list with a “B” and, on another list, ranked them against one another, in case “it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”
Those notes were locked away in prosecution files for nearly 20 years, until lawyers for Mr. Foster obtained them through a state open-records law. Before then, the prosecutors got away with lying about their motivations thanks to Georgia courts that looked the other way. Even after the notes were revealed, prosecutors continued to concoct far-fetched explanations for their behavior.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for a 7-to-1 majority, was having none of it. He called the prosecutors’ race-neutral justifications “nonsense” that “reeks of afterthought.” He noted, for instance, that the prosecutors removed a black prospective juror for being too young, even though they did not strike eight white people who were about the same age or younger. They claimed another black man was unacceptable because his son had been convicted of “basically the same thing” as Mr. Foster, although the son’s crime was stealing hubcaps, not murder.
“The focus on race in the prosecution’s file,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” This in turn plainly violated a 1986 ruling barring the exclusion of people from juries because of race — a practice that “harms not only the accused whose life or liberty they are summoned to try” but also “public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”
Mr. Foster’s victory is an important reaffirmation of that principle, but it may not reach far beyond this case. Lawyers are rarely so overt about their efforts to racially engineer juries. They rely on the peremptory challenge, which allows them to exclude a prospective juror for no reason at all. And even if a racial motivation is suspected, it is very hard to prove, since courts will accept almost any race-neutral reason that a lawyer provides.
Mr. Foster’s prosecutors knew this bar was low, and jumped over it again and again, daring the courts to call them out. Until Monday, not one did.
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