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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Snyder v. Louisiana - Successful Batson Challenge

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. The U.S. Supreme Court then directed the Louisiana court 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. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, relying entirely on one Batson violation, never mentioning the O.J. Simpson race card played by the prosecutor. Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Alito reiterated the three-part process for ruling on a Batson objection, then refined the test by adding a clear-error standard of appellate review, and then explained how that review applies in this case. Important principles result from this decision. The three-part test remains: (1) defendant must make a prima facie owing that a peremptory strike was race-based; (2) if so, the prosecutor must a offer race-neutral reason for the challenge; (3) and, in light of these submissions, the trial court must determine if there was purposeful discrimination. The Court clarified that the standard of appellate review of the trial court’s ruling is “clearly erroneous,” but the Court also made clear that an appealing defendant wins if he can show just one race-based challenge that should have been upheld under Batson. In determining if the challenge should be sustained, a trial judge considers the demeanor and credibility of the prosecutor, and an appellate court looks to the record to determine if the prosecutor’s excuse is supported. Here, the reasons given–the juror
was a student teacher who could not miss class for the week of trial, and he acted nervous during questioning–were not supported by the record. The judge’s law clerk had called the prospective juror’s college dean, who said the student teaching could be satisfied even if he missed one week while serving on the jury. The record revealed that the judge made no finding on the nervousness concern. And the record revealed that the prosecutor did not strike other prospective jurors who are white, even though they expressed similar concerns about missing work due to jury service. Having found the prosecutor’s proffered excuses to be implausible, in light of the record, the Court held that equates to purposeful discrimination under Batson. Finally, the Court noted that it does not apply to Batson appeals the causation rule applicable in many other instances that once discriminatory intent is shown, the burden shifts to the defending party to show that the factor was not determinative. In this case, in particular, remand for examination of causation could not be “profitably” explored more than a decade later. As a result, the Court reversed the judgment with no opportunity for further appellate review by the state court.