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.
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