2007 Press Releases
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Supreme Court to Hear Case Charging Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection
Professor Elisabeth Semel of Berkeley Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic available to explain potential impact of case on legal right to equal protection
On Dec. 4, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about alleged racial discrimination in the jury selection for the murder trial of Allen Snyder, an African-American man. Mr. Snyder was convicted of capital murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death in Louisiana in 1996.
The Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic (DPC) filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Mr. Snyder, on behalf of the Constitution Project. Clinic Director Elisabeth Semel, a clinic fellow, and two students co-authored the brief with the law firm of Wilmer Cutler. The DPC brief emphasizes the “unethical” nature of the prosecutor’s conduct in this case and the “powerful evidence” of his “discriminatory intent” to purge Mr. Snyder’s jury of all African Americans.
"If the Court rules in favor of Mr. Snyder,” says Professor Semel, “it will have taken yet another firm step toward the elimination of race discrimination in jury selection, which is itself another milestone on the longer road toward equal justice under law."
Professor Semel is available for broadcast and print interviews to discuss the impact of this case on the constitutional right to equal protection.
Mr. Snyder's trial took place less than a year after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in California. Simpson’s not-guilty verdicts ignited a media firestorm about race and the criminal justice system.
Prior to trial, the prosecutor publicly referred to Mr. Snyder’s case as “his O.J. Simpson case.” During jury selection, the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to strike all qualified African Americans from the panel. Despite his promise to the trial judge that he would not refer to O.J. Simpson before the jury, the prosecutor, in his rebuttal penalty phase argument, compared Mr. Snyder’s conduct to that of the defendant in “the most famous murder case” that all the jurors “have heard about,” pointing out that the “perpetrator” in that case “got away with it.”
The defense argued that to play upon these fears to an all-white jury in deciding a case with admitted similarities is an appeal to racism at worst and “vigilante justice at best.”
In its brief, filed on September 5, the Death Penalty Clinic argues that the Louisiana Supreme Court failed to take into consideration all relevant evidence in determining whether the State had struck black jurors based upon their race. It argues that the “unconstitutional nature" of the prosecutor's conduct in regard to the O.J. Simpson comparisons is "powerful evidence of the prosecutor's discriminatory intent to use his peremptory challenges to purge Mr. Snyder's capital jury of all African Americans."