Justice Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court's lone African-American, provided the lone dissent Monday in the court's decision to rule in favor of a black man convicted nearly 30 years ago of murdering an elderly white woman. The original death penalty verdict for Timothy Foster should be upheld, Thomas said, even though evidence has since surfaced showing that Georgia prosecutors intentionally picked an all-white jury for the case.
Thomas' opinion stood in stark contrast those of all seven of his fellow justices, who overturned Foster’s death sentence after court documents came to light showing that prosecutors had made notes next to potential black jurors. They made a list of “definite NO’s” for the majority of potential African-American jurors. If it came “down to having to pick one of the black jurors,” prosecutors also created a list of five people.
“Thirty years ago, Timothy Foster confessed to murdering Queen Madge White after sexually assaulting her with a bottle of salad dressing,” Thomas began his dissent. “In the decades since, Foster has sought to vacate his conviction and death sentence.”
Thomas noted that several other courts, including the Supreme Court of Georgia and trial courts, had repeatedly rejected those attempts. He also questioned whether the U.S. Supreme Court actually has jurisdiction over this case. Thomas' dissent indicated that the Supreme Court is authorized to review state court decisions only in circumstances where questions are raised about federal law. The Georgia Supreme Court's decision did not address federal laws and instead concerned state court procedures, Thomas wrote.
Conversely, Thomas' colleagues found that the prosecutors violated the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Batson v. Kentucky, which established that practices like racial exclusion from juries are unconstitutional.
“The focus on race in the prosecution's file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority decision, saying that white jurors with the same characteristics as potential black jurors kept from the case were accepted.
“Such evidence is compelling," Roberts added. "But that is not all. There are also the shifting explanations, the misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race in the prosecution's file."
Foster’s trial lawyers at the time based their defense around a troubled childhood and did not strongly contest his guilt, according to CBS News.