High Court Says Blacks Kept off Jury in Murder Case

The Supreme Court overturns a murder conviction and death sentence for a black defendant in Louisiana who said his trial was tainted by racism. A seven-member majority of the justices said the prosecutor improperly kept blacks off the jury.

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From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction and death sentence of a Louisiana man because the court said the jury selection was tainted by racial prejudice. The vote was 7-2. It's the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions that have criticized lower courts for letting prosecutors strike all or most African-Americans from juries.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that intention racial discrimination in selecting a particular jury deprived the defendant of his right to a fair trial. The court's decision involved so-called peremptory strikes in jury selection. Those are the limited number of strikes that each side gets to eliminate prospective jurors without citing any reason.

But, the ruling came to be viewed by some as a charade in which as one judge put it, prosecutors strike black prospective jurors and when challenged, offer (unintelligible) race-neutral explanations that are routinely accepted by trial judges.

In 2005, the Supreme Court sought to put some bite in the process, ordering appellate courts to more carefully scrutinize the race-neutral explanations and to see if they are pretext. That 2005 case however was so egregious and offered so much proof of discrimination, that it was considered something of an outlier. The case ruled on by the Supreme Court today, is far more routine though it is a death penalty case.

The defendant is Allen Snyder, an African-American ex-Marine who attacked his estranged wife, killed the man she was with and then barricaded himself in his home and called police.

His trial was in 1996, a year after the O.J. trial. And the prosecutor compared the two cases, telling the jury not to let this defendant get away with it. It was the jury selection however that got the Supreme Court's attention in its ruling today. Of the 36 prospective jurors who survived initial screening and quite have been pick to sit on the jury, five were black. And the prosecutor eliminated all five through his use of peremptory strikes.

Today, the Supreme Court said, at least one of the prospective jurors appeared to have been struck for racial reasons and that alone was enough to invalidate Snyder's conviction. The state will now have to retry Snyder or negotiate a plea deal.

Stephen Bright, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who represents Snyder, says today 7-2 ruling sends a strong message.

Mr. STEPHEN BRIGHT (Snyder's Lawyer; President, Southern Center for Human Rights): What the decision does is it tells trial judges not to allow prosecutors to strike most or all of the people of one race in selecting a jury. And it tells the prosecutors that if you discriminate in selecting a jury, any conviction that you get may very well be reversed on appeal.

TOTENBERG: Criminal law experts echo that sentiment saying that especially in death penalty cases, the court is letting judges know, they have to be more skeptical about the use of peremptory strikes to get rid of all or most minorities from the jury. Justice Samuel Alito wrote today's ruling declaring implausible. The prosecutors proffered reasons for eliminating from the jury a 26-year-old African-American college student named Jeffrey Brooks. The prosecutor when challenged offered two race-neutral reasons for the strike. One, that Brooks appeared nervous; and two, that he'd been concerned about missing school during the trial.

But as Justice Alito pointed out today, the judge had his clerk called the dean at the school, who gave assurances that Brooks' absence would not be a problem. The trial was to be short and in fact lasted only two days. And the prosecutor did not strike a white juror with more serious concerns about taking time off: A contractor who had two houses under construction, a wife coming home from surgery and no help at home.

Dissenting from today's ruling are Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Writing for the two, Thomas accused the court majority of unreasonably second-guessing trial judges.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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