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Justice Stephen Breyer likened the chief prosecutor to his excuse-filled grandson. Justice Elena Kagan said the case seemed as clear a violation "as a court is ever going to see" of rules the Supreme Court laid out in 1986 to prevent racial discrimination in the selection of juries.
At least six of the nine justices indicated during arguments that black people were improperly singled out and kept off the jury that eventually sentenced defendant Timothy Tyrone Foster to death in 1987.
Foster could win a new trial if the Supreme Court rules his way. The discussion Monday also suggested that a technical issue might prevent the justices from deciding the substance of Foster's case.
Georgia Deputy Attorney General Beth Burton had little support on the court for the proposition that prosecutor Stephen Lanier advanced plausible "race-neutral" reasons that resulted in an all-white jury for Foster's trial. Foster was convicted of killing 79-year-old Queen Madge White in her home in Rome, Georgia.
Several justices noted that Lanier's reasons for excusing people from the jury changed over time, including the arrest of the cousin of one black juror. The record in the case indicates that Lanier learned of the arrest only after the jury had been seated. "That seems an out and out false statement," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
Breyer drew an analogy with a grandson who was looking for any reason not to do his homework, none of them especially convincing.
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