WASHINGTON, May 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a black Georgia death row inmate convicted in 1987 of murdering an elderly white woman, finding that prosecutors unlawfully excluded black potential jurors in selecting an all-white jury.
In a 7-1 ruling, the court handed a victory to inmate Timothy Foster, 48, who asserted prosecutorial misconduct after he was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1986 murder of Queen White, a 79-year-old retired schoolteacher.
The justices threw out Foster's conviction after decades on death row. He could still potentially face a retrial.
During jury selection, all four black members of the pool of potential jurors were removed by prosecutors, who gave reasons not related to race for their decision to exclude them. Only white jurors were selected for the panel that ended up convicting Foster and sentencing him to death.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court's majority, wrote that prosecution notes introduced into evidence "plainly belie the state's claim that it exercised its strikes (removing a potential juror) in a 'color blind' manner."
At the time of the trial, Foster's legal arguments over jury selection failed. It was only in 2006 that his lawyers obtained access to the prosecution's jury selection notes, which showed that the race of the black potential jurors was highlighted, indicating "an explicit reliance on race," according to Foster's attorneys.
The notes showed that the prosecution marked the names of the black prospective jurors with a "B," highlighted them in green and circled the word "black" next to the race question on juror questionnaires.
The Supreme Court reached the conclusion that the state's prosecutors "were motivated in substantial part by race" when two of the potential jurors were excluded, Roberts wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative and the only black member of the court, was the sole dissenter.
A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it unlawful to take race into account when excluding potential jurors from a trial.
Prosecutors say Foster, 18 at the time of the crime, broke into White's home in the middle of the night, broke her jaw and sexually molested the elderly woman before strangling her and stealing items from her house.
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