Supreme Court Tosses Out Louisiana Murder Conviction Due to Racial Bias in Jury Selection

The Supreme Court overwhelmingly threw out the murder conviction of Allen Synder due to race-based challenges in a case marred by prosecutorial abuse by Jim Williams and the failure of Judge Kernan “Skip” Hand to maintain a fair trial.

The 7-2 decision was written by Associate Justice Sam Alito, who is generally viewed as one of the least sympathetic members when it comes to the rights of criminal defendants. Yet, the Court found unconstitutional race-based challenges in the handling of the murder case.

Much of the case was disturbing on its face. First, the murder trial only lasted 3½ days — shorter than some garden-variety felony cases. Yet, Synder was sentenced to death for the murder of the boy friend of his estranged wife. His wife, Mary Snyder, was severely wounded in the attack that occurred while the couple sat in a car.

Second, Jim Williams appeared to stoke the racial aspects of the case and relishing its high-profile elements. He repeatedly referred to the case as “my O.J. Simpson case” in court, including a reference in his closing argument. It is not just astonishing that a prosecutor would adopt such an inflammatory tactic, but the the judge allowed this conduct to occur.

Notably, however, such prejudicial comments did not result in the conviction being overturned. Rather, it was the fact that black potential jurors were struck on what appeared racial grounds.

Alito called prosecution’s reasons for excluding one potential jurors, student Jeffrey Brooks, “suspicious” when he merely expressed passing concern over missing classes: “The implausibility of this explanation is reinforced by the prosecutor’s acceptance of white jurors who disclosed conflicting obligations that appear to have been at least as serious as Mr. Brooks’.”

For his part (and with agreement of Justice Antonin Scalia), Justice Clarence Thomas objected to “second-guessing” state trial courts — even it appears courts that allow a circus to occur in a murder trial with repeatedly references to racially provocative cases like Simpson’s trial. There seems, however, ample reason to second-guess the work of Judge Kernan “Skip” Hand.

Justice David Souter noted the absence of any reason to defer to such judgment in a statement during oral argument: “This is not a critical mind at work, is it?”

What is most disturbing about these cases is that the public rarely holds prosecutors like Williams or judges like Hand accountable for such fiascos. For prior columns on prosecutorial abuse, click here and here. Not only did they deny an individual a fair trial, but they undermined a murder case with very strong evidence against the accused. The result was the loss of huge litigation and court expenditures, forcing the victims’ families to go through a second trial, and making a retrial more difficult due to the long passage of time. It is also notable that the Louisiana courts and lower courts also failed to take corrective action in this case.

For a copy of the decisions in this case, click here.