High court considers play of the O.J. card
The O.J. Simpson case made it to the Supreme Court on Tuesday -- not to review the double murder trial from Los Angeles but to consider how a white prosecutor used the outcome to play the race card with an all-white jury in Louisiana.
Most of the justices seemed offended as they listened to the disturbing tale of an aggressive prosecutor from suburban New Orleans who allegedly maneuvered to exclude all African Americans from a jury that would decide the fate of a black defendant who admittedly used a knife to injure his former wife and kill her boyfriend.
In his closing argument at the 1996 trial, prosecutor James A. Williams from Jefferson Parish told the jurors his case against Allen Snyder was “very, very, very similar” to the notorious case from the year before, except that Simpson “got away with it.”
Snyder’s guilt was not in doubt, since he had confessed. The jury decided unanimously to sentence him to death.
“Do you think the prosecutor would have made the analogy if there had been a black juror on the jury?” asked Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
After a long pause, the lawyer for the state of Louisiana, Terry M. Boudreaux, responded: “I think he would have.”
Justice David H. Souter wondered aloud why the trial judge had sat silently while the prosecutor excluded African Americans from the jury. When a defense lawyer objected to the Simpson reference, the judge defended the prosecutor, saying no one had described either Simpson or the current defendant, Snyder, as being black.
Souter, who has a reserved and understated manner, looked at Boudreaux and said of the judge: “Now that is not a critical mind at work, is it?”
During the arguments, the high court signaled that it was likely to reverse Snyder’s death sentence because racial bias figured in the makeup of the jury.
“What this prosecutor learned from [the] O.J. Simpson case,” Atlanta defense lawyer Stephen B. Bright told the court, “is that you don’t let blacks on the jury.”
The Snyder vs. Louisiana case is the latest to confront the Supreme Court with the lingering problem of racial bias on juries. More than 20 years ago, the court said defense lawyers should object, and the trial judge should intervene, if a prosecutor appeared to be excluding jurors because of their race.
That approach does not always work. Sometimes, a prosecutor has a plausible, and non-racial, reason for eliminating most or all blacks from a jury.
In the Louisiana case, the prosecutor initially allowed a black college student to sit on Snyder’s jury. He then moved to disqualify four other African Americans.
Having succeeded in selecting 11 whites for the jury, he then moved to disqualify the black student, saying the young man could not afford to miss the first few days of fall classes. The judge accepted the explanation.
“Basically, the defense was snookered here,” Bright said.
In the Simpson case, the defense was said to have played the race card by successfully arguing to a mostly black jury that the black defendant should be acquitted. In Snyder’s trial, Bright said, the Simpson references only bolstered the argument that race played a troubling role in the case.
To sway the all-white jury, he noted, the prosecutor cited “the most racial-polarizing case in the country.”
Justice Antonin Scalia said he was unconvinced: “Well, that’s not just racially polarizing. I mean, maybe it is also a case in which a man killed his wife with a knife -- the same as here -- and then feigned a mental illness by his great-escape escapade. That is what the prosecutor was trying to bring before the jury.”
Snyder had claimed temporary insanity when he killed his wife’s boyfriend, but the jury rejected that defense.
Louisiana’s high court upheld Snyder’s conviction and death sentence in a 4-3 decision last year and rejected the claim that the jury was racially biased.
The Supreme Court will hand down its decision in several months.