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How hard can judges crack down on bias?

The high court takes up a case where racial bias may have affected jury selection.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2007


A Louisiana death-row inmate is asking the US Supreme Court to throw out his murder conviction because the prosecutor in his 1996 trial excluded all African-Americans from the jury – and then compared the defendant to O.J. Simpson during closing arguments.

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The inmate's lawyers say the O.J. Simpson reference was intended to racially inflame the all-white jury into sentencing a black defendant to death.

On Tuesday, the high court takes up the Louisiana case to examine the prosecutor's actions and determine whether the courts in Louisiana were aggressive enough in rooting out alleged racial bias in jury selection.

"The record doesn't fully convey the reality of Jefferson Parish and of this prosecutor," says the inmate's lawyer, Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

He says the prosecutor displayed a toy electric chair in his office with five picture cutouts of each individual he had sent to death row. All were black. "This was a cowboy prosecutor in an office that was run kind of like a frat house," Mr. Bright says. "Striking all the blacks from the jury was business as usual in that office."

The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office defends the prosecutor's conduct, saying race played no role in jury selection or in the O.J. Simpson comments. The Louisiana Supreme Court has twice reached the same conclusion.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that race cannot be a factor in excluding someone from jury service. Both sides in a trial work hard to select a panel they believe will be open to their perspective. Amid this competition for sympathetic jurors, it is difficult – and in some cases, impossible – for trial judges to identify whether it is race or a legitimate factor behind a decision to exclude a prospective juror.

The case at hand, Snyder v. Louisiana, presents the high court with an opportunity to clarify how judges are to go about policing the issue.

Allen Snyder was convicted of attacking his estranged wife and a man she was dating. The man was killed in the 1995 knife attack.

The prosecutor in the case, James Williams, drew comparisons both before and during the trial to the O.J. Simpson case. The retired football star was accused of stalking and killing his estranged wife and a male companion. Mr. Simpson's acquittal in 1995 exposed a deep racial divide in the country, with most African-Americans celebrating the verdict as rare justice for a black man, and most whites believing Simpson got away with murder.

In the appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Snyder's lawyer says the prosecutor intentionally excluded all five prospective black jurors to create a whites-only panel. That action set the stage, he says, for the prosecutor's later reference to Simpson during closing arguments.

"[The prosecutor] knew that by selecting an all-white jury there was a likelihood that his appeal to race would play on the resentments [lingering from the Simpson acquittal] of at least some members of the jury," Bright says in his brief to the court.

The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office rejects allegations that race played any part in the case. Each of the black jurors was excused from the panel for reasons unrelated to race, Assistant District Attorney Terry Boudreaux says in its brief to the court. And Simpson was a legitimate topic of public discussion, he says.