WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Georgia death row inmate's conviction, ruling Monday that the jury selection was tainted.
The shorthanded court ruled 7-1 that Timothy Foster was improperly prosecuted by attorneys who "were motivated in substantial part by race" when deciding who to strike from the jury panel before the trial began.
Foster was convicted of murdering a 79-year white woman, Queen Madge White, in 1987 by an all-white jury.
Twenty years after the sentence, his lawyer used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain the prosecution's notes while it was picking a jury. Prosecutors marked potential jurors who were black with a "b" by their name.
"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 opinion.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only dissenter.
The decision allows Foster to go back to the Georgia state court and ask for a new trial. The conviction at least temporarily still stands.
The state argued the notes were used to simply prepare for a racial bias challenge.
"The state's new argument today does not dissuade us from the conclusion that its prosecutors were motivated in substantial part by race when they struck [Marilyn] Garrett and [Eddie] Hood from the jury 30 years ago," Roberts wrote. "Two peremptory strikes on the basis of race are two more than the Constitution allows."
Thomas wrote in his dissent the court didn't have the power to review the Georgia state court's decision.
"The court today invites state prisoners to go searching for new 'evidence' by demanding the files of the prosecutors who long ago convicted them . ...I cannot go along with that 'sort of sandbagging of state courts,'" Thomas wrote.
Justice Samuel Alito backed the decision but did not join in the majority decision.
Because state laws vary, it is unclear how the ruling will affect other cases that possibly involved jury selection bias.
The victim was a 79-year-old retired elementary school teacher who lived alone. The state said Foster "broke her jaw, coated her face with talcum powder, sexually molested her with a salad-dressing bottle and strangled her to death."
In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that if a defendant produces enough evidence to raise doubt whether a juror was excluded based on race, the state must give a race-neutral explanation for the striking.