Jim Williams had a reputation as a highly skilled, tenacious prosecutor -- maybe even a little bloodthirsty.
After scoring convictions in dozens of murder cases, he told a reporter: “It got to the point where there was no thrill for me unless there was a chance for the death penalty.”
In the mid-'90s, Williams posed for Esquire magazine standing behind a miniature electric chair with mug shots of five African American men he sent to death row. Since then, two of the defendants have been exonerated, two had their sentences commuted to life because of misconduct by Williams, and the fifth won a retrial after an appeals court overturned the verdict.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is to review another case in which Williams obtained a death sentence against a black man. The key question is whether Williams violated Allen Snyder’s constitutional rights by removing all the potential black jurors at the start of his 1996 trial.
The Supreme Court’s decision is expected to affect not only whether death-row inmate Snyder lives or dies but also how courts around the country weigh claims of unlawful racial discrimination during jury selection.
At the end of the trial, Williams exhorted the all-white jury to give Snyder a death sentence because the case was “very, very similar” to the “most famous murder case” just a year earlier, in which former football star O.J. Simpson “got away with it.”
Williams declined to be interviewed for this story.
As long ago as 1879, the Supreme Court said it was impermissible to arbitrarily exclude jurors because of their race. But putting teeth into such rulings has proved difficult.
In 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of a black man in Contra Costa County who was tried by an all-white jury, concluding that the California Supreme Court set too high a standard for when a trial judge should question a prosecutor’s explanation for removing jurors.
In U.S. courts, attorneys are allowed to remove potential jurors in two ways. The first is called a challenge for cause, where the lawyer has to offer a specific reason for removal, such as when a juror is married to a police officer in a case involving an officer.
The second is called a peremptory strike, where lawyers are permitted to remove a juror based simply on a hunch or intuition. States generally limit the number of peremptory strikes -- in a capital-murder trial in Louisiana, the limit is 12.
In the last 40 years, the Supreme Court has issued four major decisions aimed at limiting the ability of prosecutors to use peremptory strikes to exclude someone from a jury who is the same race as the defendant. Over time, the court has attempted to tighten the process, acknowledging that the problem continued despite its prior rulings.
In 2005, Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority in a ruling that overturned a death sentence in Texas, felt compelled to observe that “the very integrity of the courts is jeopardized” when there is racial bias in jury selection.
The setting of the Snyder case is Jefferson Parish, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Named for Thomas Jefferson, the parish is “familiar with racial divisions and appeals to race,” noted veteran defense lawyer Stephen B. Bright in his Supreme Court brief on Snyder’s behalf. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected to the Legislature from the parish in 1989 as a Republican.
Trouble for defendants
The parish is considered a particularly tough place to be a defendant in a criminal trial. In the mid-1990s, the Louisiana Supreme Court Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts held a hearing where Denise LeBoeuf testified about her experiences as a public defender in Jefferson. “Sitting judges used the ‘n-word’ in conversation in the courtroom,” she said.
LeBoeuf also said that some prosecutors, including Williams, periodically bought each other special awards when they won murder trials. Each plaque, she testified, had “a mock hypodermic needle, a big one, along with the date and the name of the defendant who had been sentenced to death.”
In 2003, the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center (now the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center), which represented defendants in death penalty appeals, released a study of 390 trials and more than 13,000 potential jurors, showing that over a nine-year period Jefferson Parish prosecutors used peremptory strikes to throw blacks off juries more than three times as often as whites.
Jefferson Parish District Atty. Paul D. Connick Jr. blasted the study as politically motivated. He said that his prosecutors did not make decisions based on race, and said only one of his office’s verdicts had been overturned because of jury-selection misconduct.
The Snyder case involves a murder in the summer of 1995 that stemmed from a marriage that went bad. Snyder’s wife, Mary, moved out and went to her mother’s house with the couple’s three children. One evening, Snyder, an ex-Marine who was working as a shipyard dispatcher, went to the house after midnight in hopes of speaking to his estranged wife.
She and her lover, Howard Wilson, arrived in Wilson’s car, and Snyder went into a rampage. He stabbed Wilson nine times, killing him. Snyder also slashed his wife 19 times. She survived and testified at her husband’s trial.
Snyder returned to his home. Twelve hours later, he called the police and when they arrived at his home, they found him curled up in a fetal position, repeatedly muttering, “They’re coming to get me.”
Snyder was arrested and admitted the stabbings. Soon thereafter, Williams, then a Jefferson Parish prosecutor, told reporters, “This is my O.J. case,” referring to the former football star then on trial, accused of stabbing to death his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman.
During pretrial hearings, Snyder’s lawyer Graham DaPonte asked Judge Kernan A. Hand to issue an order directing Williams never to mention Simpson or his case during the trial. DaPonte said references to the Simpson case were prejudicial and racially inflammatory.
Williams assured the judge that he would not mention the Simpson case at all during “the taking of evidence or before the jury.” The judge denied the defense motion.
Soon thereafter, jury selection began. Nine African Americans were in the jury pool. Williams and his co-counsel successfully challenged four for cause. Initially, Williams accepted one black juror, Jeffrey Brooks, a student at Southern University, who said he could impose the death penalty. The prosecutors then used peremptory challenges to strike two of the five remaining prospective black jurors, even though both said they could consider imposition of the death penalty.
Then the prosecutors struck a third African American, Elaine Scott, a finance clerk, who responded “I think I could” when asked whether she could impose the death penalty. At this point, defense lawyer DaPonte objected, asserting that the prosecutors had engaged in “a pattern” of removing black jurors.
Under the Supreme Court’s 1986 Batson decision, a defendant who asserts a prosecutor is acting with discriminatory intent first has to make a preliminary showing by establishing an inference that the prosecutor intentionally excluded members of the defendant’s race.
In this instance, the prosecutors said they thought Scott was “very weak on her ability to consider the imposition of the death penalty” and “very positive” about the possibility of a life sentence. Judge Hand accepted the explanation and Scott was excused. The prosecutors then dismissed Loretta Walker, the fifth African American remaining in the pool, citing her statement that she could impose the death penalty only in limited circumstances.
Then, using a so-called backstrike, Williams removed the student he initially accepted because Brooks “looked very nervous to me throughout his questioning.” In addition, Williams said that because Brooks was going to miss class he might want “to go home quickly” and as a consequence return a verdict of less than first-degree murder so there would not be a penalty phase.
This is the second time the Supreme Court has considered the Snyder case.
Two years ago, it urged the Louisiana Supreme Court, which initially affirmed his death sentence 5 to 2, to reexamine the case in light of another case ruling it issued in 2005. In that decision, the Supreme Court, after making an unusually detailed review of a Texas murder case, rebuked a federal appeals court for turning a blind eye to evidence that Dallas prosecutors had deliberately excluded blacks from a jury that convicted Thomas Miller-El.
Death upheld again
The second time around in the Snyder case, the vote was closer, 4 to 3, but the Louisiana Supreme Court once again upheld the death sentence. The majority accepted the arguments of Jefferson Parish’s top appellate lawyer, Terry M. Boudreaux, that Williams had valid reasons for exercising peremptory challenges against five black jurors.
But Justice Catherine Kimball, who wrote the majority opinion the first time around, this time issued a strong dissent, saying the “cumulative evidence” showed that the prosecutor’s stated explanations for striking Brooks were a pretext and that the evidence of “intentional racial discrimination” was compelling.
In particular, she said “the record reveals that when the trial court informed” Brooks that the supervisor of his program at Southern University “did not see a problem as long as he missed only one week, Mr. Brooks simply responded ‘OK.’ He did not voice any further concerns or ask any questions.”
Boudreaux, the assistant district attorney who is representing Jefferson Parish on appeal, urged the Supreme Court to uphold the majority opinion. He maintained that Williams did nothing wrong. Boudreaux said that Williams brought up the Simpson case in his rebuttal argument only after a defense lawyer, while arguing for mercy, talked about Snyder’s suicidal state at the time of the crime.
Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson’s dissenting opinion said it was “blatantly clear” that Williams “did not intend to keep” his promise not to mention the Simpson case. She maintained that Williams “had no need” to make any reference to Snyder “not getting away with murder during the penalty phase of the trial.”
At that point, Johnson emphasized, Snyder “had already been convicted of the crime, so there was nothing for him to ‘get away with.’ The prosecutor utilized the O.J. Simpson verdict to racially inflame the jury’s passion to sentence this defendant to death. Such tactics leave no doubt in my mind that the prosecutor had a racially discriminatory purpose for excluding the African American jurors.”