Why a Black Man Has a Chance to Get off Death Row

Allen Snyder gets another day in court today -- and not just any court. The Supreme Court is going to look at his curious case to determine whether it's more than just the latest in a series of racially unjust capital trials that continue to plague the courts, two score and three years after the Civil Rights Act.

An all-white juror convicted Snyder in 1996 of murdering his estranged wife's boyfriend. The prosecutor who handled the case -- and who exercised his peremptory challenges to exclude all blacks from the jury -- told jurors that O.J. Simpson (then only a year removed from his own murder trial) had "gotten away with it." The lower courts all have sided with the state. Slam dunk for Louisiana, right? Wrong. There are at least three reasons why Synder's odds today are not as long they might seem.

Reason No. 1: Snyder is riding a wave of Supreme Court dissatisfaction and impatience over the cavalier attitude lower court judges, especially Southern judges, have displayed toward jury selection for black defendants in capital cases. The court's recent (and some say ongoing) tussle with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is only the most public display of friction.

Reason No. 2: Snyder is riding a legal wave of momentum against an expansive capital punishment structure. In 2002, the court struck down the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants. In 2005, the court struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders -- those who had killed before they were old enough to vote. And, to no one surprise, the justices are poised to demand changes to the way our prison officials execute condemned inmates by lethal injection.

Reason No. 3: Despite the addition to the court of Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. in place of Sandra Day O'Connor, there still appears to be a working majority on the court in favor of more judicial oversight of capital cases. In Synder's case, a southern prosecutor -- who had a toy electric chair in his office with five black cutouts, the photos of the five black men he had sent to death row -- invoked Simpson's name to an all-white jury sitting in judgment of a black defendant.

Snyder's case cries out for a reversal. 5-4, says me. With you know who writing the majority opinion.

By Andrew Cohen |  December 3, 2007; 5:53 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I have an ignorant question. If the prosecutor who handled the case can exercise his preemptory challenges to exclude all blacks from the jury, can the defense exercise preemptory challenges to exclude all whites from the jury? If not, why not?

Posted by: bsimon | December 4, 2007 10:12 AM

It would be helpful to know before forming a opinion on prosecutorial actions to know how many preemptory challenges Louisiana gives to the prosectuion and defense and how many blacks were in this particular jury pool.

Posted by: DC | December 4, 2007 03:03 PM

yeah, you are right. Us whites are just a bunch of racist rednecks. We could never vote to acquit when faced with a black defendant. Of course, everytime I get jury duty, I immediately think "I hope the defendant is black so I can convict" and "I would never convict a white guy"

Dontcha know that only black people commit crimes?

How come, then, do black juries convict blacks and acquit whites?

Who hit you with the stupid stick? And why is it important to protect criminals from society? My sister in law was killed by an incorrectly released and incorrectly supervised criminal. Race had no part in that travesty. Jails are a revolving door and this column feeds that.

Juries listen to evidence and render a verdict.

For you to make Jena, LA the cause celebre is irresponsible. What about the most famous racist jury that acquitted OJ. Payback for all the blacks convicted by white? No just idiots that did not understand that contaminated DNA is more likely to acquit than convict. And the starstruck judge Ito who gave bad instructions before deliberations.

Posted by: Parnum | December 4, 2007 04:59 PM

I do not know why I had jena on my mind, I meant Snyder. You never mentioned if the evidence was adequate for a conviction.

Posted by: Parnum | December 4, 2007 05:02 PM

The O.J. Simpson criminal trial verdict by that all-black jury was a racist act and a hate crime. Even if you disregard the DNA evidence, there was a mountain of evidence to covict. That all-black jury wouldn't have convicted O.J. Simpson if there had been 50 video-tapes covering every angle of the two killings. They were simply sticking up for a bro and the evidence didn't matter.

Posted by: CJ | December 5, 2007 01:59 AM

The O. J. Simplson jury was comprised of nine Blacks, 2 Hispanics, and one White.

Posted by: Corrector | December 5, 2007 08:57 AM

I believe the posted responses here show unequivacolly, the danger in one group, in this case whites, believing that they, and they alone, can make the only really fair & honest decisions about the guilt or innocence of EVERYBODY else. The history of the world, including the history of the U.S., certainly proves those beliefs to be incorrect.(I'm willing to bet that examples are not necessary!) So invested are they in their own righteous belief that they are the only true arbiters of character, that they are by far more often the victims of child predators, serial killers and other deviants, because they trust EACH OTHER too much! And all others too little. Why on earth would it be more acceptable for a white man to judge an accused offender, rather than one or a few from the offenders own neighborhood? A true jury of his peers? The ONLY reason is because the white juror would be more likely to convict--regardless of the evidence--if the defendent is a minority. Beginning with the history of the world, and the early history of this country (Indians and slaves),from the marauding lynch mobs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to the lynching juries of the 20's through the present, whites have not shown themselves to be any more capable of fairness and objectivity than any other people. In fact, they have proved they are even LESS so. Whether you agree or not, you know, don't you? You know I am telling the truth!!

Posted by: Veronica | December 5, 2007 09:05 AM

Veronica writes: Why on earth would it be more acceptable for a white man to judge an accused offender, rather than one or a few from the offenders own neighborhood? A true jury of his peers.

O.J. Simpson lived in Brentwood, a very exclusive area with mostly million dollar homes. His criminal trial all-black jury all came from South Central LA, a border line slum area. Tell us again about this "jury of his peers".

The trouble with the O.J. Simpson criminal trials all-black jury verdict-and the reason the overwhelming number of Americans are certain that OJ got away with two brutal murders-was, we all watched the entire trial on TV. We saw and heard all the evidence from both sides and there was absolutely no doubt that he did it. As Att. Melanie Lomax said-commenting on the OJ criminal trials verdict on one of the cabel-news shows-'there was enough evidence to sink a battleship'. This all-black racist jury ignored it all and voted not guilty only because OJ was a brother and had the politically-correct skin-color, and the two murdered victims were white so didn't count as human beings. And that was a racist decision and a hate crime!
PO Mark Furman was punished more for having used the N-word once 20 years ago, than O.J. Simpson, who committed two brutal murders. If anyone was 'lynched' it was Mark Furman and the American justice system.

Posted by: CJ | December 5, 2007 12:49 PM

I think the story from the AP about the oral arguments had a telling statement. Chief Justice Roberts asked the respondent if the prosecutor would have made the OJ comparision if the jury had had at least one black member, and, for a time, there was complete silence. In my experience from moot courts and watching appellate cases, being silent like that never helps your case.

Posted by: William Smith | December 5, 2007 02:18 PM


Take your racist rants and stick 'em. And stick to the issue being discussed. But since you seem to think OJ is relevant here, let me disabuse you of that notion.

If you really want to know why OJ walked, look no further than the utter incompetence of the DAs. They made the decision to chage the venue of the case to Los Angeles instead of staying in Brentwood. Minorities in LA have a long history of being mistreated by the police, and those jurors undoubtedly listened to the prosecution's witnesses with great skepticism. The DA sent Marcia Clark, who couldn't think her way out of a paper bag, against the likes of Bailey, Cochran, Sheck and Shapiro. The prosecutors were the ones who made tactical error after tactical error during the trial -- whose bright idea was it to suggest OJ should try on the glove? And finally, what the heck were they doing staying up all night before giving closing arguments? Didn't they know their case yet?

OJ almost certainly committed the murders, but his aquittal had more to do with the gross incompetence of the prosecutors than jury nullification.

Do yourself a favor, get over the OJ case and start living in the present.

Posted by: John Q. Public | December 6, 2007 10:00 AM

My experience of white juries in such as the OJ case would be that, if they convicted on the evidence as presented, they would be deciding only on prejudice.

The evidence as presented to the jury (and not including much of the blather that was put out on the airwaves and spread on the pulp of many trees was NOT enough to make it beyond a reasonable doubt. There was plenty of room for any jury to find him not guilty on that standard.

There was, however, sufficient evidence to make a finding on the lesser standard we use for civil cases, "greater weight of the evidence"; the civil case was also far better presented to that jury.

Could the prosecutors have gotten a conviction? Maybe, but not on the evidence and presentation to that jury-- not all black. If there were a failure of justice, it was the prosecution, not the jury.

Posted by: Whitey here | December 6, 2007 11:38 AM

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