The Supreme Court cast doubt Tuesday on the actions of a prosecutor who called a Louisiana murder trial his "O.J. Simpson case" and kept blacks off the jury.
Skeptical justices considered whether prosecutor Jim Williams improperly excluded blacks from the jury that convicted Allen Snyder of killing his estranged wife's companion. Snyder is black and the jurors were white.
The trial took place in August 1996, less than a year after Simpson was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and a male friend of hers. Leading up to the trial, Williams made repeated public references to the Snyder case as his "O.J. Simpson case."
In his final remarks before jurors decided whether to sentence Snyder to death or life in prison, Williams said the case reminded him of Simpson's, although he didn't use Simpson's name.
"The perpetrator in that case ... got away with it," Williams said, after the trial judge overruled a defense objection.
During arguments Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts asked Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Terry Boudreaux: "Do you think the prosecutor would have made that analogy if there had been a black person on the jury?"
After a long pause, Boudreaux replied, "I think he would have."
Allegations of racial bias
During jury selection in the trial, Williams disqualified all five blacks in the pool of prospective jurors. The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that prosecutors may not exclude people from a jury solely because of their race. The court already had sent Snyder's case back to the Louisiana courts following a ruling in 2005 that bolstered the prohibition on race bias in jury selection.
Stephen Bright, Snyder's lawyer, focused on two blacks who answered questions in the same way as whites in the jury pool. But while the whites were questioned extensively about their responses, the blacks were simply disqualified by the prosecutor.
"Racial prejudice infected the selection of the jury," Bright argued Tuesday.
Snyder was convicted of first-degree murder in Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans, in August 1996. He was found guilty of repeatedly slashing his estranged wife, Mary Snyder, and a man, Harold Wilson, with a knife when he found them in a car outside her mother's home in August 1995. His wife survived, but Wilson died.
Trial judge rebuked
Adding to the Simpson comparison, Snyder told police just before his arrest that he was suicidal. Simpson, armed with a gun and apparently considering suicide, led police on a dramatic, televised chase before surrendering.
In a 4-3 decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that race had no part in the state's decisions involving black potential jurors.
On Tuesday, the justices were critical of the trial judge, Judge Kernan "Skip" Hand, who overruled many defense objections about the prosecutor's use of race and Simpson's name.
In one instance, the judge said he would allow the jury to consider the Simpson analogy because the prosecutor did not mention either Simpson's or Snyder's race.
"Now that is not a critical mind at work, is it?" Justice David Souter said.
Scalia: O.J. did it
Justice Antonin Scalia at one point suggested that the comparison was fair, convicting Simpson in the process.
"It is also a case in which a man killed his wife with a knife. ... The same as here," Scalia said.
Bright cut in: "Well, there are a lot of similarities."
Scalia continued: "And then feigned a mental illness by his, his great-escape escapade, and ... that is what the prosecutor said he was trying to bring before the jury."
But Bright pointed out that the crime in the Snyder case occurred months before the Simpson verdict. He said the lesson Williams learned from watching the Simpson case, in which a jury with whites and blacks on it acquitted the former football star, was clear. "You don't let blacks on the jury," Bright said.
A decision is expected by summer.
The case is Snyder v. Louisiana, 06-10119.