Oral argument: December 4, 2007
Appealed from: Supreme Court of Louisiana (September 6, 2006)
RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, JURY SELECTION, DEATH PENALTY, PEREMPTORY STRIKES
An all-white Louisiana jury found Allen Snyder, an African-American man, guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. At trial, the prosecution used peremptory strikes to exclude all black prospective jurors from the jury. The prosecution compared the case to the O.J. Simpson case -- before trial, to reporters, and during sentencing, to the jury. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Louisiana Supreme Court to reconsider its finding of no discriminatory jury selection in light of Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005). On remand, a narrow majority of the Louisiana Supreme Court reaffirmed its initial ruling. Snyder argues that the court misapplied Miller-El by failing to consider "all relevant circumstances" of the prosecution's discriminatory intent at trial and by according the trial court's findings an excessive degree of deference. The State of Louisiana contends that the court properly considered the case according to Miller-El's principles and rightfully excluded evidence not on the record from its analysis. The Supreme Court's decision will influence how future courts and litigants identify and prevent unlawful racial discrimination in jury selection.
Petitioner Allen Snyder, a black man, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for the fatal stabbing of his wife's male companion. Prior to trial, the prosecutor reported to the media that this was his "O.J. Simpson case." At trial, the prosecutor peremptorily struck all five African-Americans who had survived cause challenges and then, over objection, urged the resulting all-white jury to impose death because this case was like the O.J. Simpson case, where the defendant "got away with it." On initial review, a majority of the Louisiana Supreme Court ignored probative evidence of discriminatory intent, including the prosecutor's O.J. Simpson remarks and argument, and denied Mr. Snyder's Batson claims by a 5-2 vote.
This Court directed the court below to reconsider Mr. Snyder's Batson claims in light of Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005). See Snyder v. Louisiana, 545 U.S. 1137 (2005). On remand, a bare majority adhered to its prior holding, once again disregarding substantial evidence establishing discriminatory intent, including the prosecutor's references to the O.J. Simpson case, the totality of strikes against African-American jurors, and evidence showing a pattern of practice of race-based peremptory challenges by the prosecutor's office. In addition, the majority imposed a new and higher burden on Mr. Snyder, asserting that Rice v. Collins, 546 U.S. 333 (2006), permitted reversal only if "a reasonable factfinder [would] necessarily conclude the prosecutor lied" about the reasons for his strikes. Three justices, including the author of the original opinion, dissented, finding the prosecutor's reference to the O.J. Simpson case in argument to an all-white jury, made "against a backdrop of the issues of race and prejudice," supported the conclusion that the State improperly exercised peremptory strikes in a racially discriminatory fashion.
The Louisiana Supreme Court's consideration of Mr. Snyder's Batson claims on remand from this Court raises the following important questions:
1. Did the majority below ignore the plain import of Miller-El by failing to consider highly probative evidence of discriminatory intent, including the prosecutor's repeated comparisons of this case to the O.J. Simpson case, the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges to purge all African-Americans from the jury, the prosecutor's disparate questioning of white and black prospective jurors, and documented evidence of a pattern of practice by the prosecutor's office to dilute minority presence in petit juries?
2. Did the majority err when, in order to shore up its holding that Mr. Snyder had failed to prove discriminatory intent, it imported into a direct appeal case the standard of review this Court applied in Rice v. Collins, an AEDPA habeas case?
3. Did the majority err in refusing to consider the prosecutor's first two suspicious strikes on the ground that defense counsel's failure to object could not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel because Batson error does not render the trial unfair or the verdict suspect -- i.e., that failure to raise a Batson objection can never result in prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) - a holding directly conflicting with decisions from inter alia the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and the Alabama and Mississippi Supreme Courts?
1. Did the Louisiana Supreme Court misapply Miller-El v. Dretke by failing to address several factors supporting a claim of intentional discrimination by the prosecution in a capital trial, including comparisons to the O.J. Simpson trial, the elimination of all African-Americans from the jury by peremptory challenge, differences in the questioning of black and white prospective jurors, and a manner of excluding minority prospective jurors that indicated a pattern of discrimination?
2. Did the Louisiana Supreme Court erroneously apply the standard of review from Rice v. Collins, a federal habeas corpus case that employed a strict standard not applicable in the present case?
In August 1996, Allen Snyder, an African-American capital defendant, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. The jury found Snyder guilty of fatally stabbing the male companion of Snyder's estranged wife in an attack one year earlier. Twelve hours after the attack, Snyder called the police and threatened to kill himself. After his arrest, Snyder admitted to the stabbings. Louisiana indicted Snyder on a first-degree murder charge and sought the death penalty for a single aggravating factor.
Before the trial commenced, Prosecutor James Williams began publicly referring to the case as "his O.J. Simpson case." Defense counsel moved in limine to preclude Williams from referring to the O.J. Simpson case at Snyder's trial or at media conferences. Upon assurances from Williams that he would not mention the O.J. Simpson case in the presence of the jury or the media, the court denied defense counsel's motion.
At the jury selection stage of Snyder's capital trial, nine prospective jurors were black. The prosecution successfully challenged for cause four of these prospective jurors but accepted Jeffrey Brooks, an African-American student at a local university. The prosecution then exercised peremptory challenges to remove two of the five remaining black prospective jurors. After the prosecution struck the third black potential juror, defense counsel objected pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1976). Under Batson, the a prospective juror's right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment is violated if he or she is eliminated from the jury solely on the basis of race. . Defense counsel claimed that the prosecution had established a pattern of striking jurors based on their race in violation of Batson. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that the prosecution had articulated race-neutral reasons for his strikes. The prosecution then used its remaining peremptory challenges to removed Brooks and the final remaining black prospective juror.
During closing arguments, the prosecution compared Snyder's case to the "famous murder case," alluding to the O.J. Simpson trial, California v. Orenthal James Simpson. Over defense counsel's objection, the prosecution argued that Snyder threatened to kill himself, just as the defendant had in a case in California involving a Ford Bronco. That defendant, the prosecution argued, had "gotten away with it."
The jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced Snyder to death. The trial court denied defense counsel's motion for a new trial, finding that the prosecution had provided sufficient race-neutral reasons for its challenges. On appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the judgment and remanded in light of Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005).
On remand, the Louisiana Supreme Court reaffirmed, finding that Miller-El did not alter the Batson test. Applying Miller-El, the Court found that Snyder had not demonstrated discriminatory intent in jury selection. On June 25, 2007, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the prosecution at a criminal trial may not exercise peremptory challenges to exclude jurors on the basis of race. Pursuant to Batson, courts reviewing alleged discriminatory intent must examine "all relevant circumstances." In Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005), the Court explained that "all relevant circumstances" requires courts to look "beyond the four corners" of the case at hand. . However, the Court left open whether Miller-El imposed a new, stricter standard for reviewing discriminatory intent. The Court's decision in this case will influence how courts review discriminatory intent during jury selection, how Batson can effectively prevent racial discrimination in jury selection, and how prosecution teams exercise peremptory challenges.
Snyder argues that the Louisiana Supreme Court failed to consider "all relevant circumstances" as required by Batson. Snyder points out that the prosecution struck black jurors who shared characteristics with accepted white jurors, a circumstance that Miller-El specifically associated with discriminatory intent. Snyder argues that prosecution's motive to discriminate against black jurors is further demonstrated by the backstrike of Brooks and Prosecutor Williams' comments about the controversial O.J. Simpson trial.
The State of Louisiana argues that the trial correctly rejected the Batson challenge after the prosecution offered race-neutral reasons for its selections. The State distinguishes Miller-El, arguing that the holding there was based on specific facts not present in this case. The State argues that "all relevant circumstances" must be limited to the record, therefore making the prosecutor's comments to the media inadmissible. The State asserts that the Court should not consider the O.J. Simpson comments made at closing arguments, because they had no bearing on the trial court's ruling on the peremptory strikes.
Implications for Jury Selection
If the Court finds for the State, trial courts are likely to narrowly interpret their duty under Batson to prevent racial discrimination in jury selection. If courts narrowly interpret Miller-El, it is likely that more black defendants will be tried by juries primarily or entirely composed of white jurors. Indeed, the Cornell Death Penalty Project argues that overruling the Supreme Court is important to prevent race-based recalcitrance from lower courts that are not following the commands of Miller-El. . The Parish Ministers from Jefferson Country, in their brief supporting Snyder, argue that by turning a blind eye to race-based jury selection, courts could deny black criminal defendants their Sixth Amendment right to fair trial.
By comparison, if Snyder prevails, trial courts may be compelled to expansively interpret their Batson duties. However, stricter scrutiny of the jury selection process might handcuff lawyers. As the Fifth Circuit stated in Romero v. Lynaugh, jury selection draws upon the lawyer's intuition, experience, and empathy to evaluate potential jurors. If courts obstruct a prosecutor's ability to "feel out" a juror, they hamper a lawyer's ability to zealously perform his or her duties.
Implications for Batson's continued vitality
An outcome for the State could undermine the effectiveness of courts' review under Batson for racially-motivated jury selection. The Constitution Project argues that jury selections perceived as racially biased undermine the public's confidence in the judiciary, a problem that is only compounded by the high profile and high stakes of death penalty litigation. Agreeing with the Project, Parish Ministers from Jefferson County maintain that this problem is even more acute amongst minority groups, who will lose confidence in the criminal justice systems if they perceive racial bias in jury selection, thereby defeating a main policy objective of Batson.
The Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("LACDL") argues that Miller-El has failed to prevent racial discrimination under Batson challenges because states like Louisiana have excessively deferred to trial courts. The Association argues that Batson's continuing vitality will be undermined if the Court does not support Snyder's broad interpretation of Miller-El.
The End of the Peremptory Strike?
Both the LACDL and the Constitution Project point to Thurgood Marshall's concurring opinion in Batson, in which Justice Marshall argued that the only way to remove inherent racial discrimination in jury selection is to eliminate peremptory strikes of prospective jurors. A finding for Snyder could support proponents of this reform. However, eliminating peremptory strikes could unduly restrict a party's right to participate in jury selection. If jury selection is "art rather than science," then peremptory strikes are the lawyer's paintbrush because they allows lawyers to use their own experience and instincts to choose jurors who will return a favorable verdict.
Assessing the Propriety of Peremptory Strikes: The Standards of Batson v. Kentucky and Miller-El v. Dretke
The denial of participation in a jury based upon one's race violates the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the Supreme Court articulated a three-step analysis for courts reviewing claims of intentional racial discrimination in the jury selection process. Under Batson, a defendant claiming discriminatory intent first must make a prima facie showing by establishing an inference that the prosecutor intentionally excluded members of the defendant's race. To make this showing, a defendant may rely on "the totality of the relevant facts." Likewise, a judge evaluating the validity of this showing must consider "all relevant circumstances," including the prosecution's questions and statements during juror selection and the presence of a pattern of strikes against members of the defendant's race during juror elimination.
Once the defendant has made a prima facie showing of discrimination, the State has the burden of providing a race-neutral explanation for challenging jurors of the defendant's race. Based on this evidence, the trial court must then determine the validity of the defendant's claim of purposeful discrimination.
In light of the concern that "any facially neutral reason sufficed to answer a Batson challenge" and would thus deprive a defendant of an otherwise valid discrimination claim, the Court elaborated on the Batson claim requirements in Miller-El v. Dretke. Miller-El requires courts to look beyond the surface of the prosecutor's stated reason for a disputed strike and "assess the plausibility of that reason in light of all evidence with a bearing upon it." Courts may not satisfy the prosecution's burden by substituting a rational basis for the reason actually given. Snyder, like the dissenting Louisiana Supreme Court justices, reads Miller-El as requiring a stricter Batson analysis of the trial record. The State of Louisiana , however, agrees with the Louisiana Supreme Court that Miller-El is a "fact-bound opinion" that is distinguishable from the current case and thus does not compel a finding of a Batson violation.
Evidence of Discriminatory Intent at Snyder's Trial
Snyder claims that, taken together, the prosecution's use of peremptory strikes against all of the black potential jurors combined with racially inflammatory references to the O.J. Simpson case illustrate discriminatory intent in violation of the standards articulated in Batson and Miller-El. Thus, Snyder argues, the Louisiana Supreme Court erred in affirming the trial court's Batson rulings.
Excluding Consideration of Two of the Five Strikes
First, Snyder argues, the majority below erred in failing to consider statistics demonstrating racial disparities in the prosecution's overall record of peremptory challenges. Such a disparity formed part of the basis for finding discriminatory jury selection in Miller-El. However, Snyder urges, by excluding from its inquiry all but two of the five strikes of black prospective jurors, the Louisiana Supreme Court neglected evidence of intent that Batson requires courts to consider in the final step of the discrimination analysis.
The State of Louisiana contends that the Louisiana Supreme Court properly declined to consider three out of the five strikes because two were not the subject of objection at trial and because Snyder's counsel abandoned a dispute as to the remaining strike by failing to raise it on appeal. The State supports the Louisiana Supreme Court's finding that the failure of Snyder's counsel to raise timely objections to these strikes effectively waived consideration of them on appeal.
Reviewing the State's Reasons for Striking Black Jurors
Second, Snyder posits that the Louisiana Supreme Court misapplied the guidelines of Miller-El in evaluating the two strikes deemed to be preserved on appeal. The prosecution claimed that it backstruck Jeffrey Brooks, an African-American student, because of Brooks' apparent nervousness and because of concern that Brooks' eagerness to return to class would induce him to return a lesser verdict so as to avoid a penalty phase. Snyder counters, as Justice Kimball asserted in dissent in the opinion below, that "the record contains no objective support" for an objection to Brooks' demeanor, as he appeared to be "an engaged and voluble juror" throughout the voir dire process. Furthermore, Snyder challenges the prosecution's second reason, because the prosecution accepted other prospective white jurors who voiced similar concerns about missing important commitments, an inconsistency in peremptory strikes that Miller-El held to be "evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination."
The State argues that the prosecution's concern about Brooks' potential motive to conclude trial as quickly as possible was supported by the evident difficulty it would pose for Brooks to make up missed hours of class in order to graduate on time. The State agrees with the Louisiana Supreme Court majority's reasoning that because other jurors with work conflicts were already employed, unlike Brooks, Brooks faced a unique and compelling risk in serving that justified the race-neutral reason for the prosecution's strike.
Snyder challenges as unsupported the prosecution's strike of Elaine Scott on the ground that her statements exhibited a preference for imposing a life sentence over the death penalty. He maintains that the few-word answers Scott gave to the prosecution's questions, coupled with the prosecution's lack of follow-up questioning on Scott's views of the death penalty, fail to justify the race-neutral reasons offered to explain the strike. The State responds that Scott's statement that she "think[s]" she could impose the death penalty illustrates "equivocation and uncertainty as to [her] ability to follow the law." Thus, the State asserts, the trial court properly overruled the objection, and this decision is entitled to deference because it is based on first-hand observation of the participants in the trial that is no longer available to a reviewing court.
Failing to Consider the Prosecutor's References to the O.J. Simpson Trial
Third, Snyder argues that the majority below misapplied Miller-El by failing to consider as evidence of discriminatory intent the prosecutor's comparison of the present case to the O.J. Simpson case both before and during trial. The prosecutor was arguably appealing to racial bias by invoking "the most racially divisive event . . . in recent American history." Snyder claims that the prosecutor's reference to the O.J. Simpson case at the penalty phase of trial, a breach of his promise "as an officer of the court" not to again mention that case, sheds light on the prosecutor's discriminatory intent.
The State responds that the majority acted properly. The State points out that the references to the Simpson case were made in the penalty phase, after the trial court had already overruled Snyder's Batson objections. The trial court lacked an opportunity to consider the prosecutor's comments and thus the propriety of these comments was not on initial appeal nor is now at issue. Furthermore, the State supports the Louisiana Supreme Court's holding that a reviewing court should not consider Snyder's citations to authorities not in the record as evidence of the racial implications of the Simpson trial.
Louisiana Supreme Court's Standard of Review
Snyder alleges that the Louisiana Supreme Court erred in giving full deference to the trial judge's summary rulings on appeal. In employing a "clearly erroneous" standard of review, the court, according to Snyder, "employed a degree of deference that would virtually eliminate appellate review of Batson issues." Snyder notes that this standard derives from the Louisiana Supreme Court's reliance on Rice v. Collins, 546 U.S. 333 (2006), use of which was unjustified due to fundamental differences in the facts between Rice and the present case and due to Rice's application of a federal habeas statute not at issue here. The State of Louisiana contends that the Louisiana Supreme Court properly employed a deferential standard of review that provided a sufficient basis for its decision and complied with the U.S. Supreme Court's directive to reconsider the case in light of Miller-El.
The Supreme Court's decision in this case will clarify what factors courts must consider in reviewing claims of racial discrimination during jury selection. This question matters: racial disparities in measures of well-being stubbornly persist and unfortunately reinforce explicit or implicit racial bias. Snyder argues that courts must review Batson claims of racial discrimination more expansively in the wake of the Court's decision in Miller-El. The State of Louisiana maintains that Miller-El did not narrow courts' discretion in applying Batson. An outcome in this case will guide lower courts in assessing Batson objections, clarify the continued vitality of Batson in preventing race-based jury selection, and address the need for reform in jury selection including eliminating peremptory strikes.
Edited by: Ferve Ozturk
- Law About. . . Equal Protection
- Death Penalty Information Center , "U.S. Supreme Court: Miller-El v. Dretke"
- Death Penalty Information Center, "History of the Death Penalty Part II"
- "Court Will Hear Louisiana Death Case", USA Today (2007).
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