by James Oliphant
The Supreme Court Wednesday overturned the death sentence of Allen Snyder, a Louisiana man convicted of hacking his wife's lover to death, because an African-American juror was unfairly excluded from the panel.
In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court said that the state trial judge made a mistake when he allowed prosecutors to strike an African-American college student from the jury. Prosecutors said at the time that they thought the student worried too much about missing school to be an effective juror.
But the court ruled that was a pretext, largely because the murder trial itself was to last only two days.
And while the justices had no need to get into it, Jefferson Parish, where the trial took place, has a long history involving the striking of black jurors. On appeal, Snyder's lawyers claimed that the prosecutor in the case eliminated all of the African-Americans he could so that he could inflame the jury's racial passions. On several occasions, the prosecutor compared his case to that of O.J. Simpson's -- the trial was held in 1996. The jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder. His lawyers say Snyder should have be convicted of manslaughter.
At the jury selection phase of the trial, the lawyers questioned 85 potential jurors, of which nine were African-American in a parish where one in every five people was black. Four black jurors were dismissed for cause. Then the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to eliminate the remaining five. It's the striking of those five that formed the basis of Snyder's appeal. But since the Supreme Court only had to find racial bias in one instance, it did not address the exclusion of the rest of the jurors.
“Today, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to eradicating racial bias in the selection of juries in this country, an important step in bringing our society closer to the promise of equal protection and fairness for all,” said Stephen Bright, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, in a statement released by the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project. “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 cease.”
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the opinion, along with Justice Antonin Scalia. Thomas wrote that the trial judge was in the best position to decide whether the prosecutor was striking jurors in good faith.
You can read the opinion here.