WASHINGTON - The O.J. Simpson case made it to the Supreme Court yesterday - not to review the double-murder trial from Los Angeles, but to consider how a white prosecutor used the outcome to play the race card with an all-white jury in Louisiana.
Most of the justices sounded offended as they listened to the tale of an aggressive prosecutor from a New Orleans suburb who maneuvered to exclude all the blacks from a jury that would decide the fate of a black defendant who had used a knife to injure his ex-wife and kill her boyfriend.
In his closing argument at the 1996 trial, prosecutor Jim Wilson told the jurors his case against Allen Snyder was "very, very, very similar" to the notorious case from the year before, except that Simpson "got away with it."
Snyder's guilt was not in doubt, since he had confessed. The jury decided unanimously to sentence him to death.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked, "Do you think the prosecutor would have made the analogy if there had been a black juror on the jury?"
After a long pause, the lawyer for the State of Louisiana, Terry M. Boudreaux, responded: "I think he would have."
Justice David H. Souter wondered aloud why the trial judge had sat silently while the prosecutor excluded all the blacks from the jury. When a defense lawyer had objected to the Simpson reference, the judge had taken the prosecutor's side and said that no one had described either Simpson or the defendant, Snyder, as being black.
Souter, whose manner is reserved and understated, looked at Boudreaux and said of the judge, "Now that is not a critical mind at work, is it?"
During yesterday's arguments in
Snyder v. Louisiana
, the court signaled it was likely to reverse Snyder's death sentence because racial bias figured in the jury makeup.
"What this prosecutor learned from the O.J. Simpson case," Atlanta defense lawyer Stephen B. Bright told the court, "is that you don't let blacks on the jury."
The case is the latest to confront the Supreme Court with the lingering problem of racial bias on juries. More than 20 years ago, the court said that defense lawyers should object, and the trial judge should intervene, if a prosecutor appears to be excluding jurors because of their race.
In the Louisiana case, the prosecutor initially allowed a black college student to sit on Snyder's jury. He then moved to disqualify four other blacks. Having succeeded in selecting 11 whites for the jury, he then moved to disqualify the black student, saying the young man could not afford to miss the first few days of fall classes. The judge accepted that explanation.
"Basically, the defense was snookered here," Bright said.
In the Simpson case, the defense was said to have played the race card by successfully arguing to a mostly black jury that Simpson, who is black, should be acquitted.
In Snyder's trial, Bright said, the Simpson references only bolstered the argument that race played a troubling role in the case. To sway the all-white jury, he noted, the prosecutor cited "the most racial-polarizing case in the country."
Louisiana's Supreme Court upheld Snyder's conviction and death sentence last year and rejected the claim of a racially biased jury.
A decision is expected by summer.
To read a transcript of the oral arguments in the case, go to