WASHINGTON The Supreme Court, ruling that a Louisiana prosecutor had used improper tactics to pick an all-white jury for a black defendant’s murder trial, on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a man who has been on death row for 12 years.
The vote was 7 to 2, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion. It was the second time since he joined the court more than two years ago that Justice Alito voted for the defendant in a criminal case in which the court was divided.
Although the opinion hewed closely to the facts of the case, the decision was nonetheless a significant elaboration of the court’s ruling 22 years ago in Batson v. Kentucky. That case opened the door for individual defendants to challenge jury selection on the ground of racial discrimination.
While it was indisputably a landmark ruling, the Batson decision promised more than it has delivered, in the view of the many criminal defense lawyers who maintain that the prosecution practice of using peremptory strikes to remove black jurors remains widespread.
Three years ago, noting that “the very integrity of the courts is jeopardized” by racial bias in jury selection, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Texas death-row inmate on the ground that the prosecutor’s explanations for removing black jurors were based on a pretext.
Immediately after that decision, the justices ordered the Louisiana Supreme Court to re-examine its rejection of a similar argument raised by Allen Snyder, a death-row inmate whose appeal was pending. The Louisiana court, voting 4 to 3, reaffirmed Mr. Snyder’s conviction, leading to the renewed appeal that the justices decided Wednesday. He is now entitled to a new trial.
At Mr. Snyder’s original trial for stabbing to death a man who was dating his estranged wife, the prosecutor used his peremptory strikes to remove all five black potential jurors. Justice Alito dissected the explanation the prosecutor had offered for one strike, that of a college student who initially said he could not serve because of a student-teaching obligation.
The trial judge’s law clerk telephoned the student’s dean and learned that jury service for the anticipated length of the trial would not pose a problem. The student, Jeffrey Brooks, then dropped his objection. But the prosecutor removed him anyway, explaining when later challenged by the defense lawyer that the student might have been so eager to get his jury service over with quickly that he would be reluctant to convict the defendant of a capital crime that would require a separate death penalty hearing.
The prosecutor also said Mr. Brooks “looked very nervous to me.” The trial judge then allowed the peremptory strike without inquiring further or making findings about the plausibility of the explanation.
This was “clear error,” Justice Alito said. He added that while the explanation was “unconvincing” and “suspicious” on its face, its “implausibility” was reinforced by the prosecutor’s acceptance of two white jurors who cited as reasons for not wanting to serve personal obligations that were at least as pressing as the student’s. This sequence of events “naturally gives rise to an inference of discriminatory intent” that the prosecution did not rebut and that the trial judge should have recognized, he said.
The Batson decision established a three-step process to challenge a peremptory strike as discriminatory. At the first stage, if the prosecutor’s actions suggest discrimination, the defense raises an objection. Next, the prosecution has to provide a “race neutral” explanation for striking particular jurors.
This case, Snyder v. Louisiana, No. 06-10119, concerned the third stage, at which the trial judge has to evaluate the prosecutor’s explanation and decide whether it is genuine or a pretext for discrimination.
The opinion on Wednesday said that because trial judges were in the best position to evaluate what occurred in the courtroom, they “have a pivotal role in evaluating Batson claims” and should ordinarily receive deference from appellate courts. But the facts of this case overcame the deference standard, Justice Alito said.
In the dissenting opinion, Justices Thomas and Scalia said that because it was not clear that the jurors were struck on the basis of race, there was no reason for the court to “second guess” the judge.
Stephen B. Bright, a lawyer at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, who argued the case for Mr. Snyder, said the decision would send to both trial judges and prosecutors the message that racial discrimination in jury selection would jeopardize convictions.
Mr. Bright had argued that the prosecutor’s motive in this case was to be able to argue to an all-white jury that Mr. Snyder’s crime resembled the charge on which O. J. Simpson had been acquitted 10 months earlier. Mr. Simpson “got away with it” and Mr. Snyder should not, the prosecutor told the jurors.