How hard can judges crack down on bias?
The high court takes up a case where racial bias may have affected jury selection.
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"The O.J. Simpson case was an historical fact of which the jury would have been aware," Mr. Boudreaux writes in his brief. "The mentioning of it was no more than pointing out some obvious similarities between the two cases: a husband upset over his wife's perceived relations with someone else, a furious attack of his wife while in the company of another man, the attacks result in death, the attacks are with knives.…"Skip to next paragraph
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Other analysts disagree. "The prosecutor's premeditated strategy of purging one racial group and appealing to the racial biases of another was constitutionally intolerable," says Sherri Johnson in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Cornell Death Penalty Project.
Former US Solicitor General Seth Waxman, now a lawyer in Washington, has called the prosecutor's actions unusual, unethical, and unconstitutional. "The prosecutor's comparisons to O.J. Simpson were manifestly an attempt to divert the jury from its duty to render a verdict according to the evidence and the law," Mr. Waxman writes in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the Constitution Project.
There is no question of Snyder's guilt. His lawyer concedes in his brief that Snyder was clearly responsible for the death. But he seeks a new trial because he says a new jury, more representative of the entire community in Jefferson Parish, might find Snyder guilty of a lesser offense than capital murder. And even if they convict Snyder again of capital murder, he says, a different jury might opt for life in prison rather than death.
At the time of the attack, Snyder was depressed and distraught over his disintegrating marriage. He held a steady job, was a four-year Marine Corps veteran, and did not have an extensive criminal background. After the attack, police found him barricaded in his house, curled up in the fetal position, repeating: "They're coming to get me. They're coming to get me."
Mr. Williams, the prosecutor, made his first reference to Simpson in pretrial comments to the media. He called the Snyder case his "O.J. Simpson case."
Snyder's lawyer filed a pretrial motion, calling such comments "prejudicial and racially inflammatory." But the trial judge declined to order the prosecutor to stop after Williams promised not to mention Simpson in the trial. Despite his pledge, Simpson came up in Williams's closing argument.
Snyder's lawyer told the jurors during his own closing argument how Snyder had called police and told them he was going to kill himself.
Williams seized on the issue in a rebuttal argument, saying the episode reminded him of the "most famous murder case … in probably recorded history…."
Snyder's lawyer immediately objected, but the judge allowed the prosecutor to continue.
"The most famous murder case, and all of you all have heard about it, happened in California very, very, very, similar to this case," Williams told the jury. "The perpetrator in that case claimed that he was going to kill himself as he drove in a Ford Bronco and kept the police off him, and you know what, he got away with it."
Although he did not mention Simpson by name, analysts say the reference was clear, including emphasizing that Simpson "got away with it."
After the jury sentenced Snyder to death, defense lawyers asked for a new trial. The trial judge and the Louisiana Supreme Court have twice upheld the conviction.
The US Supreme Court is expected to rule by June.