Blacks Were Improperly Kept Off La. Jury, High Court Rules

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Supreme Court yesterday reversed the conviction of a Louisiana death row inmate, ruling that a prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury in what he had called his "O.J. Simpson case."

The court's 7 to 2 decision means a new trial for Allen Snyder, who was sentenced to death in 1996 after being convicted of killing his estranged wife's boyfriend and seriously wounding her.

Former Jefferson Parish prosecutor James Williams, who was known for persuading juries to sentence murderers to death, compared Snyder's case to Simpson's both in and outside court and told jurors during the sentencing phase of Snyder's trial that Simpson "got away with it."

The court's opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., did not mention the Simpson remarks but focused narrowly on whether Williams had improperly excluded blacks from the jury.

Snyder's lawyer, Stephen B. Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said the decision is an important reinforcement of the court's position that judges have an obligation to scrutinize why lawyers reject potential jurors.

"The court's decision saying you can't discriminate in choosing juries was really being ignored," Bright said. "The court very resoundingly told judges and prosecutors that striking jurors on the basis of race must end."

Lawyers have great leeway in eliminating potential jurors as unsuitable, including using peremptory challenges, which do not require a reason. But the Supreme Court held in Batson v. Kentucky in 1986, and has reaffirmed in subsequent cases, that race cannot be a factor.

In the case at hand, Snyder v. Louisiana, prosecutors used peremptory challenges to eliminate all five of the 36 prospective jurors who, like Snyder, are black.

When defense lawyers protested, Williams said he had eliminated potential juror Jeffrey Brooks because Brooks had seemed "very nervous" and because the college student had been concerned that serving on the jury might interfere with his student-teaching responsibilities.

The Supreme Court found the explanations "unconvincing" and said the trial judge gave no reason for accepting them.

"The implausibility" of Williams's concerns about Brooks's schedule, wrote Alito, who is a former prosecutor, "is reinforced by the prosecutor's acceptance of white jurors who disclosed conflicting obligations that appear to have been at least as serious."

Alito wrote that the peremptory challenges were "motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent."

During oral arguments in the case, Bright emphasized the exclusion of black jurors and the trial judge's passivity in accepting the prosecutor's reasoning.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wondered at the time whether striking African Americans from the jury was connected to Williams's remarks about Simpson. "Do you think the prosecutor would have made the analogy if there had been a black juror on the jury?" he asked the lawyer for the state of Louisiana.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented from yesterday's decision.

Thomas criticized his colleagues for second-guessing trial judges, who he said are in the best position to evaluate challenges to jurors, and for "paying lipservice to the pivotal role of the trial court."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company