The US Supreme Court has put an exclamation point on a 1986 precedent that bars racial discrimination in jury selection.
The justices did it in a 7-to-2 ruling announced on Wednesday, reversing the capital-murder conviction of a black Louisiana death-row inmate.
Allen Snyder won the right to a new trial because the prosecutor in his 1996 murder case improperly excluded at least one African-American from the jury.
The case has been closely followed after reports that the state prosecutor, James Williams, excluded all five prospective African-American jurors from serving on the panel and then compared the defendant to O.J. Simpson during closing arguments. Analysts said it was an attempt to enrage the all-white jury and provoke a death sentence for a black defendant.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito did not mention the O.J. Simpson episode. Instead, he focused on the plight of one prospective black juror, Jeffrey Brooks, who was excluded from the panel.
Justice Alito said the prosecutor told the trial judge that he'd excluded Mr. Brooks from the jury because he looked nervous and because as a student-teacher with only one semester until college graduation he might feel an urgency to rush through jury deliberations to get back to school.
The trial judge accepted the explanations and brushed aside allegations by Snyder's lawyer that race was playing an illegal role in the trial.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said that action by the trial judge was a "clear error."
Alito said the first justification for excluding Brooks does not appear to have been relied on by the trial judge. But he added that the second justification was "suspicious." Alito writes: "The prosecutor's proffer of this pretextual explanation naturally gives rise to an inference of discriminatory intent."
Despite the prosecutor's announced concern about Brooks and his busy schedule at school, prospective white jurors who were facing significantly more acute scheduling problems were not subject to the same questioning, Alito said.
In a dissent, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia said that the evaluation of a prosecutor's motives in assembling a jury is a credibility judgment that best belongs to the trial judge who is present and can witness events as they unfold. Appeals court judges should be reluctant to second-guess those judgments years later.
Justice Thomas said there is no evidence that the trial judge committed clear error. In addition, he said the majority justices should not have relied on a comparison between the treatment of black prospective jurors and white prospective jurors because that comparison was not presented as an argument until the case reached the US Supreme Court.
"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.
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.