Breaking News

Court finds flaws in La. jury choice

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on Wednesday that the trial judge in a Louisiana murder case — one that involved a prosecutor’s use of the O.J. Simpson case to try to help win a death sentence against a black man — was wrong in rejecting a challenge to the denial of a seat to one black juror. The strike of two black jurors by prosecutors led to the seating of an all-white jury trying Allen Snyder of Kenner, La.  The Court’s decision was confined to the rejection of one of the two blacks on the panel.

The ruling came in the case of Snyder v. Louisiana (06-10119). Although the case had gained prominence because it appeared to be a test of the use of racially charged comments by prosecutors to win either convictions or death sentences when blacks were on trial, that aspect did not figure in the final ruling. In announcing its decision in the case, the Court did not mention the episodes in which the prosecutor referred to this as his “O.J. Simpson case” to draw a parallel to Simpson’s prosecution, suggesting that there a black man had gotten by with murder.

Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote the majority opinion.  Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented.  This was the only ruling on the merits Wednesday.

The Court’s decision appeared to be a straightforward application of the 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky and sequels to it — decisions that barred race-based uses of automatic (“peremptory”) challenges in criminal trials.  Justice Alito’s opinion, while reciting familiar legal principles, focused his opinion primarily upon the specific facts in prosecutor’s removal of a black college student — first because, prosecutors said, he appeared nervous, and second because, they argued, the young man had obligations as a student teacher.  Neither of those reasons justified the strike of that juror, Jeffrey Brooks, the Court concluded.  Defense lawyers objected to that strike, as they did to the removal of another black juror, Elaine Scott.  Justice Alito said that, because it was “clear error” for the trial judge to reject the Batson challenge to Brooks’ strike, “we have no need” to rule on Ms Scott’s removal and the defense objection to it.

Justice Thomas, in dissent, contended that “none of the evidence in the record as to jurors Jeffrey Brooks and Elaine Scott demonstrates that the trial court clearly erred in finding that they were not stricken on the basis of race.”

In Snyder’s trial, there was a jury pool of 85, including nine blacks.  The prosecution struck all nine — four for stated causes, and five with peremptory challenges.  Only two of the peremptories were at issue in Wednesday’s ruling.