Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Saying no to bull

Imagine what would happen to our society if judges returned to their original purpose and made their trials into searches for truth, not stages for ritual legal drama. Today's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, overturning the death penalty and ordering a new trial for a Louisiana man convicted of killing his estranged wife and her male friend in 1996, looks like a major step in that direction. In a 7-2 ruling, the court held that the conviction was improper because the prosecutor excluded all five potential black jurors from the trial on the basis of race, despite the prosecutor's claims that he did not. What is significant about this is not the ruling about race, which is fairly settled law. What was unusual, at least to this observer, was that the Supreme Court said it had to look beyond the lawyers' arguments and figure out the meaning behind the words. The court found that even though the prosecutor contended there were other reasons besides race to exclude the five black potential jurors from the trial of Allen Snyder, a black former Marine who turns 46 on Friday, the truth was that the other reasons were weak or, as the majority said, "suspicious." Then again, there apparently was no question about whether Snyder was responsible for the deaths. The only question was whether it was murder, which would make Snyder eligible for the death penalty, or another form of homicide which would not. In fact, one of Snyder's attorneys, Jelpi Picou of the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, said the charge against Snyder should be reduced to manslaugher. The majority opinion was written by Samuel Alito, who was appointed to the court by the current President Bush.

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