March 19, 2008 / 3:33 PM / 10 years ago

Court overturns death row inmate's conviction

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a black Louisiana death row inmate because race had played an improper role in the selection of an all-white jury.

By a 7-2 vote, the high court ruled for Allen Snyder, who had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for stabbing his estranged wife 15 times and killing a man with whom she was talking.

During jury selection in New Orleans, prosecutor James Williams excluded five black potential jurors, resulting in an all-white jury. Defense attorneys objected to the removal of two of the potential jurors, arguing the decision by the prosecutor had been improperly based on race.

In a narrow, fact-specific ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court majority held the trial judge had committed clear error in ruling against the defense lawyers over the removal of one of the black potential jurors. The court did not address the second potential juror.

The justices overturned a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that held that race had played no part in the prosecutor’s decision to remove the black potential jurors.

The high court since 1986 has ruled that prosecutors and defense lawyers cannot remove potential jurors, as part of challenges made without giving a reason, simply because of their race.

In 2005, the court ruled that prosecutors at a 1986 capital murder trial for a Texas death row inmate had engaged in racial discrimination by keeping blacks off the jury.

In the Snyder case, defense lawyers also argued that the prosecutor’s racial prejudice was shown during sentencing when he compared the defendant to O.J. Simpson. Williams told jurors in seeking the death penalty that circumstances in Snyder’s case resembled the highly publicized murder case against the black former football star, “who got away with it.”

A racially mixed jury in 1995 acquitted Simpson in the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. He was later found liable for Goldman’s wrongful death in a civil trial before a mostly white jury.

The Supreme Court did not mention the Simpson remarks in its ruling.

Justices Clarence Thomas, the court’s only black, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented. Thomas wrote that none of the evidence in record demonstrated that the trial judge erred in finding the two potential jurors were not removed because of race.

Editing by David Wiessler

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