Supreme Court bars use of race in picking juries
Its 7-to-2 ruling Wednesday reverses a Louisiana death-penalty conviction.
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"We have no business overturning a conviction, years after the fact and after extensive intervening litigation, based on arguments not presented to the courts below," Thomas wrote in the dissent.Skip to next paragraph
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The case, Snyder v. Louisiana, was being closely watched to see if the high court might use it as an opportunity to show how judges should go about properly policing the issue of racial bias in jury selection.
Details of the case
The prosecutor in the case, Mr. Williams, compared the Snyder case 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 with a knife. Simpson's acquittal in 1995 triggered starkly different reactions among African-Americans and whites. Many African-Americans celebrated the Simpson acquittal, while many whites believed Simpson got away with murder.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Snyder's lawyer said the prosecutor intentionally excluded all five prospective black jurors to create a whites-only panel. That action set the stage for the prosecutor's inflammatory reference to O.J. Simpson during closing arguments, he said.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office has defended the prosecutor's conduct and the quality of the trial, saying race played no role in jury selection or in the O.J. Simpson comments. The Louisiana Supreme Court twice upheld Snyder's capital murder conviction.
A Kentucky case set precedent
In 1986, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Batson v. Kentucky that race cannot be a factor in excluding someone from jury service. But the jury-selection process includes allowing competing lawyers the ability to exclude a certain number of jurors without having to offer any justification. That means it is difficult – and in some cases, impossible – for trial judges to identify whether race or some legitimate factor was behind a decision to exclude someone.
If an allegation is made that race was a factor in jury selection, judges are required to seek an explanation from the accused counsel.
In Snyder's case the trial judge accepted the prosecutor's explanations and Louisiana appeals courts allowed those judgments to stand.
The US Supreme Court action marks the second time the Snyder case is being remanded to the Louisiana courts. In effect, the justices are telling Louisiana judges that they must be more vigilant to ensure that race plays no role in the administration of justice.
There is no question of Snyder's guilt. His lawyer concedes that Snyder is clearly responsible for Mr. Wilson's death.
But the lawyer has said he seeks a new trial because 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.