The circumstances concerning a Rome case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday are sad for all involved: a retired schoolteacher, loved by the community and a troubled teen who murdered her.
In 1986 Timothy Tyrone Foster brutally tortured and murdered Queen Madge White during a burglary. He wasn’t arrested until a month after the crime but police found the stolen items at his home and he confessed to the crime.
His lawyer at that time, Bob Finnell, remembers the case distinctly.
“It was a very sad case and Tim was a very sad figure,” Finnell said. “This was just a child who was created and thrown on the dung heap by his family and, essentially, by the system.”
Now 47, Foster was 18 at the time. He was on drugs and had an extensive juvenile record.
“I remember very vividly he had a record in the juvenile court, a report, that said unless this young man got intervention in his life he was going to commit a crime in the future,” Finnell said. “Of course, there was no intervention.”
Foster was convicted of the murder and burglary. In a death penalty trial there are two phases — the conviction and the penalty phase where the defendant is sentenced.
Part of the Foster’s defense against the death penalty was to show the dire circumstances of his life — an environmental defense — essentially “look at where this kid came from,” Finnell said.
His lawyers spoke with Foster’s father and asked him to take the stand to talk about Foster’s life. He said he wouldn’t do it.
“He told me ‘We smoke our dope, we laugh and I can always make another kid,’” Finnell said. “You wonder how could somebody say that about his child. It was chilling.”
Foster, who is black, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury.
The question that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court is whether or not then-Floyd County District Attorney Steve Lanier improperly excluded potential black jurors from the death penalty trial of Foster in 1987.
Murder of a beloved person
Queen White lived by herself in Rome. She’d retired after teaching over 30 years and had been a fourth-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary School.
By all accounts she was loved by her friends, former co-workers and students.
On Aug. 27, 1986, at approximately 8:30 p.m. a friend took White to choir practice and brought her back to her Highland Circle home near the Coosa Valley Fairgrounds.
White talked to her sister on the telephone around 9 p.m.
Her sister stopped by early the next morning, discovered White’s house had been ransacked and found her body lying on the floor of her bedroom.
According to court records, she was covered up to her chin by a blanket, and her face was covered in talcum powder. Her jaw was broken, and she had a severe gash on the top of her head. Before she had been strangled to death, White had been molested with a salad-dressing bottle.
Police had suspects, and Foster — who lived nearby — was one of them. But they had no evidence linking him to the crime.
Nearly a month later Foster was arrested after threatening his live-in companion on Green & Gold Boulevard. She responded to his threats by turning him in.
White’s possessions were recovered from their home and from Foster’s two sisters.
Foster confessed to the killing shortly after his arrest.
The community was outraged over the brutal circumstances of the murder, and several lawyers refused to represent Foster.
“Obviously (Foster) was an African-American and (White) was a beloved member of our community,” Finnell said. “She was a lovely person.”
Questions of racial discrimination
Almost 30 years later, one of the attorneys who represented Foster at his 1987 trial, James Wyatt, said the composition of the jury shows a clear case of discrimination.
“The jury speaks for itself. Twelve white jurors convicted him. That’s the bottom line,” Wyatt said. “A black was not given the opportunity to be on the jury.”
The appeal centers on the fact that all four black jurors were removed from the jury by then-Floyd DA Lanier.
Lawyers for Foster are relying on prosecutors’ notes that they discovered 19 years after the trial through an open records request.
The notes from then-Floyd County DA investigator Clayton Lundy — who was black — show the names of each potential black juror highlighted in green, and the word “black” was circled next to the race question on questionnaires for the black prospective jurors.
The Supreme Court had ruled nearly a year before in Batson v. Kentucky that it is unconstitutional to remove a potential juror because of race.
Additionally if the jury’s composition is challenged then prosecutors have to provide a race-neutral reason for striking the jurors.
At the 1987 trial Foster’s attorneys objected to Lanier’s choice of striking all of the black jurors. A hearing was held in Floyd County Superior Court concerning the matter.
The court ruled Lanier provided race-neutral reasons for striking those jurors before the trial.
One of the black jurors had a son of a similar age to Foster who had been convicted of theft and sentenced to prison.
Another juror appeared confused and bewildered, and a third did not disclose that her husband had been arrested for a violent crime. The last prospective black juror was a social worker, and Lanier testified in the hearing that prosecutors in general “stay away from them.”
After Foster’s conviction he appealed the reasons for striking the jurors, but the Georgia Supreme court affirmed the Floyd County court’s ruling.
Georgia officials argue that the process of highlighting or noting the race of a prospective juror does not show the intent to discriminate.
Wyatt and Foster’s attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights who will be arguing before the high court disagree with that ruling.
“My opinion would still be they fell short of rebutting that assumption,” Wyatt said. “That was my stance then and this is mine now.”
Arguments in the case, Foster v. Chatman, are scheduled to be heard by the high court on Monday.
Aug. 27 — Queen Madge White goes to choir practice, later speaks with sister
Aug. 28 — Sister finds White murdered, home ransacked
Sept. 26 — Timothy Tyrone Foster arrested after domestic dispute on Green & Gold Boulevard
Nov. 13 — Foster escapes from Floyd County courthouse, captured nearby
April 27 — Jury selection. Prosecutor Steve Lanier strikes the four black jurors
May 1 — Foster convicted on murder, burglary charge. Sentenced to death
May 28 — Foster files motion for new trial
Nov. 22 — Georgia Supreme Court affirms convictions and sentences, later denies reconsideration
July 28 — Foster files petition alleging intellectual disability, habeas court sends case to Floyd County
March 15 — Civil trial convened, jury determines Foster not intellectually disabled
Jan. 18 — Georgia Supreme Court affirms jury’s finding on Foster’s intellectual capacity
Jan. 30 — Foster petitions U.S. Supreme Court over racial bias in jury selection
Sept. 9 — Supreme Court sets arguments for Nov. 2.