Citing bias, justices reject death sentence
The Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the death sentence and murder conviction of a black Louisiana inmate on the grounds that racial bias had infected the selection of his jury.
The 7-2 decision is the court’s latest effort to press trial judges to intervene when a prosecutor moves to exclude blacks from the trial of a black defendant.
In Wednesday’s opinion, the high court said a trial judge in Jefferson Parish, La., “committed clear error” by sitting idly while prosecutor James A. Williams excluded all the blacks in the jury pool for the 1996 trial of Allen Snyder, an African American who confessed to using a knife to injure his estranged wife and kill her boyfriend.
The same prosecutor also referred to the trial as “his O.J. Simpson case” because, he said, the facts were “very, very similar” to the notorious double murder trial in Los Angeles.
The court has “resoundingly told judges and prosecutors throughout the country that the practice of striking people from jury service based on their race must end,” said Atlanta civil rights lawyer Stephen B. Bright, who represented Snyder. “I hope that, as a result of this decision, juries will be more representative of their communities.”
Though it is commonly said that Americans have a right to a trial by a jury of their peers, the Constitution does not use those words. It says defendants have a right to a “public trial by an impartial jury.”
Though nearly a quarter of the Jefferson Parish population is black, a study of death penalty cases tried there found that many were decided by all-white juries.
For its part, the Supreme Court has said that excluding jurors because of their race violated the Constitution’s guarantee of the equal protection of laws.
Enforcing that rule is not easy, however, because it is not entirely clear why a prosecutor may choose to remove a particular juror.
Both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer have considerable freedom to shape the jury. Both sides may remove potential jurors for cause -- for example, jurors may be excused because they know or work with someone involved in the case.
In addition, both sides are free to exclude a certain number of jurors for any reason, including a hunch about their views. In Louisiana, each side can use up to 12 of these “peremptory challenges.”
In Snyder’s case, all five of the prospective black jurors were eliminated by the prosecutor.
The last to be excluded, Jeffrey Brooks, was a college senior who said he might miss a few days of class if he was selected for the jury. One white juror who was retained said he was a self-employed contractor who had two houses that were nearing completion and a wife who had just undergone major surgery.
When asked to explain his actions, the prosecutor said he removed Brooks, the last black juror, because he appeared to be “very nervous” and would miss a few days of class.
The trial judge accepted this explanation, as did Louisiana’s highest court in a 4-3 decision.
In overturning the conviction, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. described the prosecutor’s reasons for excluding the last black juror as “suspicious” and “implausible.”
The contrast of that action with the decision to retain the white juror was “particularly striking,” he added.
When put together, the evidence strongly suggests the prosecutor was “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent” when he shaped the jury, Alito said in Snyder vs. Louisiana. His opinion focused narrowly on the facts of this case, and it did not lay out a new or clear principle of law.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. Thomas faulted the majority for second-guessing the prosecutor’s “race-neutral reasons” for excluding the black jurors, including the college senior.
The ruling overturns Snyder’s conviction, but prosecutors can retry him for the murder.