WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday considered whether a Louisiana prosecutor who compared a black murder defendant to O.J. Simpson used racial bias to engineer an all-white jury.
The defendant, Allen Snyder, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for killing a married male friend of his estranged wife, who was injured in the same knife attack.
During sentencing in the New Orleans trial, the prosecutor told jurors that circumstances resembled the highly publicized murder case against black football star O.J. Simpson, who “got away with it.”
Snyder’s lawyers later cited that comment as evidence the prosecutor had tried to inject race into the trial and wrongly used his powers to keep black people off the jury.
“They (excluded) all the blacks they could in this case,” Snyder’s attorney Stephen Bright told the nation’s highest court, which heard arguments in the case on Tuesday.
“I think what this prosecutor learned from O.J. Simpson ... is that you don’t let blacks on the jury.”
A racially mixed jury in 1995 acquitted Simpson in the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. He was later found liable for Goldman’s wrongful death in a civil trial before a mostly white jury.
The issue before the eight white and one black Supreme Court justices is whether the Louisiana Supreme Court failed to properly weigh the charges of racial bias in jury selection. Snyder is seeking a new trial.
The high court since 1986 has limited the authority of defense lawyers and prosecutors to exclude jurors for no reason. It has ruled that jurors cannot be excluded simply because of their race.
The justices focused on whether Snyder’s lawyers should have more aggressively challenged the juror exclusions and questioned whether prosecutors failed to sufficiently justify why they blocked potential black jurors.
Some justices showed interest in the defense argument that mentioning the Simpson case demonstrated an attempt to inject race into the trial.
“Do you think the prosecutor would have made the analogy if there had been a black juror on the jury?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked, prompting a long silence before the attorney representing Louisiana said he would have.
The attorney, Terry Boudreaux, said the comparison was made because Snyder tried to feign insanity after the killings, similar to Simpson’s highly publicized flight from police in a white Ford Bronco.
Editing by Lori Santos and Doina Chiacu