A deeply torn Supreme Court on Tuesday probed the actions of a Louisiana prosecutor who eliminated all blacks from a jury pool, then invoked the O.J. Simpson case in urging the all-white jury to sentence a black man to death.
Prosecutor James Williams said the "perpetrator" in that famous California case "got away with it."
Allen Snyder, who was then sentenced to die for killing his estranged wife's friend, claims the prosecutor unconstitutionally excluded prospective black jurors. Snyder said the prosecutor's reference during the 1996 trial to Simpson, who a year earlier was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her friend, helped reveal his biased intent.
The justices appeared divided over the case, which could clarify standards for defendants who claim racial bias in jury selection. An overriding question is how deeply appeals courts should scrutinize the circumstances when a prosecutor purges blacks from a jury and a judge accepts the reasons as race-neutral, for example, that a potential juror seemed nervous.
A 1986 case, Batson v. Kentucky, bars prosecutors from using their allotted "peremptory," or discretionary, challenges during jury selection to strike someone because of race. The justices have emphasized in recent rulings that the exclusion of minorities undermines the integrity of the justice system.