Boalt Hall’s Death Penalty Clinic had cause to celebrate this week when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict and death sentence of Allen Snyder, an African American man convicted of murder in 1996.
The Clinic filed an amicus curiae brief in Snyder v. Louisiana, arguing that the prosecutor engaged in unconstitutional conduct, and highlighting evidence of his”discriminatory intent” to rid the jury of all qualified African Americans. Clinic director Elisabeth Semel, along with clinic fellow Kate Weisburd and students Desiree Ramirez ’09 and Armilla Staley-Ngomo ’08, co-authored the brief with the law firm of Wilmer Cutler.
The Court overturned Snyder’s conviction and ordered a new trial, concluding that an African American college student was unfairly excluded from the jury in violation of 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Prosecutors claimed the student was excluded because he worried too much about missing school to be an effective juror, but the Court ruled their justification was a pretext, noting the murder trial lasted only two days.
“The most important fact about this opinion is the vindication of Allen Snyder’s right to a jury selected free of racial bias,”Semel says of the Court’s 7-2 decision. “When the Clinic authors friend-of-the-court briefs, of course we have our eye on the possibility that the decision will affect the rights of many defendants. But the students understand that they can never lose sight of the fact a man or woman’s life is at stake.”
Snyder’s trial—before an all-white jury in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana—occurred less than a year after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. Despite assuring the trial judge that he would not refer to Simpson before the jury, the prosecutor compared Snyder’s conduct to that of the defendant in “[t]he most famous murder case” that all the jurors “have heard about,” noting that the”perpetrator” in that case”got away with it.”
At Snyder’s jury selection, lawyers questioned 85 potential jurors. In a jurisdiction that is 20 percent African American, only nine potential jurors were African American. Four were dismissed for cause and the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to strike the rest, forming the basis of Snyder’s appeal. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Snyder’s conviction against a claim that the prosecutor had exercised his challenges in a discriminatory manner—violating Batson v. Kentucky, which prohibits race discrimination in the selection of trial juries.
The Clinic’s involvement in Snyder marked a continuation of its work in Thomas Miller-El’s case (Miller-El v. Dretke) from 2002 to 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court found racial bias had tainted Miller-El’s jury selection and overturned his death sentence. In both cases, the Clinic advocated for vigorous enforcement of the rule in Batson .
“The Snyder decision reaffirmed the rule that striking even one juror on the basis of race is constitutionally impermissible,” Semel says.
Just hours after the Court granted Snyder relief, Miller-El—who was about two months away from execution when the Clinic joined in his application for review to the Supreme Court—entered a plea in Texas to capital murder that allows for the possibility of parole.
Because the Court in Snyder had to find racial bias in only one instance, it did not address the exclusion of the other African American jurors. While pleased with the verdict, Semel laments that the majority chose not to address the persistence of race discrimination in America’s trial courts.
“To say that the Snyder opinion is spare is an understatement,” she says. “It makes no mention of the explosive, racially charged atmosphere in which the trial occurred on the heels of the of O.J. Simpson verdict. It also makes no mention of the fact that the prosecutor struck all nine African-American prospective jurors and used the specter of Simpson’s acquittal to urge the all-white jury to sentence Mr. Snyder to death.”
—By Andrew Cohen