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December 3, 2007

SCOTUS to focus again on race and the death penalty

Though the Baze lethal injection case is the most consequential death penalty case coming before the Supreme Court this term, the Snyder case to be argued before the Justices tomorrow is sure to generate a lot of buzz about racial realities in the application of capital punishment.  Helpfully, this article today's Los Angeles Times gets the discussion off to a rousing start.  The article is headlined, "Jury under justices' scrutiny; The Supreme Court will hear a Louisiana case in which a black man was sentenced to die after all blacks were kept off the panel."  But the start of the story reveals that it is really a prosecutor coming under scrutiny in Snyder:

Jim Williams had a reputation as a highly skilled, tenacious prosecutor -- maybe even a little bloodthirsty. After scoring convictions in dozens of murder cases, he told a reporter: "It got to the point where there was no thrill for me unless there was a chance for the death penalty."

In the mid-'90s, Williams posed for Esquire magazine standing behind a miniature electric chair with mug shots of five African American men he sent to death row. Since then, two of the defendants have been exonerated, two had their sentences commuted to life because of misconduct by Williams, and the fifth won a retrial after an appeals court overturned the verdict.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is to review another case in which Williams obtained a death sentence against a black man.  The key question is whether Williams violated Allen Snyder's constitutional rights by removing all the potential black jurors at the start of his 1996 trial. 

The Supreme Court's decision is expected to affect not only whether death-row inmate Snyder lives or dies but also how courts around the country weigh claims of unlawful racial discrimination during jury selection.  At the end of the trial, Williams exhorted the all-white jury to give Snyder a death sentence because the case was "very, very similar" to the "most famous murder case" just a year earlier, in which former football star O.J. Simpson "got away with it."

For those interested in more background on the appellate particulars in Snyder v. Louisiana (06-10119), the folks doing SCOTUSwiki have this extended entry on the case.

December 3, 2007 at 10:43 AM | Permalink


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I read the briefs in Snyder to do a press briefing on the case. My own view of it is that, while each of the acts by the prosecutor might pass muster if looked at individually, the collection of them is indigestable and very likely to result in reversal.

One thing your readers might be interested in knowing is that Snyder's brief, signed by Stephen Bright of the SPLC, expressly concedes that Synder is the killer. So for whatever other problems the case might have, and they are significant in my view, this is not an instance where guilt is in doubt. If Stephen Bright is conceding guilt, the guy's guilty.

Your readers might be interested in knowing that there was one cert grant this morning in a criminal case, although no sentencing issues are involved. The case is ROTHGERY v. GILLESPIE COUNTY, TX, No. 07-440 (whether the right to counsel attaches only when a prosecutor prepares or makes a formal charge, or when the individual goes before a magistrate who finds probable cause that a crime has been committed).


Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 3, 2007 12:04:48 PM

Thanks, Bill. I am glad, for a variety of reasno to know Snyder is guilty so that we need not get distracted by innocence issues. I also feel confident saying that if Bill Otis thinks this death sentence is likely to be reversed, this death sentence is likely to be reversed.

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 3, 2007 1:43:44 PM


No fair crackin' me up. You're going to ruin my reputation as a Neanderthal.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 5, 2007 10:27:20 AM

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