NEW ORLEANS — Jim Williams had a reputation as a highly skilled, tenacious prosecutor -- maybe even a little bloodthirsty.
After scoring convictions in dozens of murder cases, he told a reporter: "It got to the point where there was no thrill for me unless there was a chance for the death penalty."
In the mid-'90s, Williams posed for Esquire magazine standing behind a miniature electric chair with mug shots of five African American men he sent to death row. Since then, two of the defendants have been exonerated, two had their sentences commuted to life because of misconduct by Williams, and the fifth won a retrial after an appeals court overturned the verdict.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is to review another case in which Williams obtained a death sentence against a black man. The key question is whether Williams violated Allen Snyder's constitutional rights by removing all the potential black jurors at the start of his 1996 trial.
The Supreme Court's decision is expected to affect not only whether death-row inmate Snyder lives or dies but also how courts around the country weigh claims of unlawful racial discrimination during jury selection.
At the end of the trial, Williams exhorted the all-white jury to give Snyder a death sentence because the case was "very, very similar" to the "most famous murder case" just a year earlier, in which former football star O.J. Simpson "got away with it."
Williams declined to be interviewed for this story.
As long ago as 1879, the Supreme Court said it was impermissible to arbitrarily exclude jurors because of their race. But putting teeth into such rulings has proved difficult.
In 2005, the Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of a black man in Contra Costa County who was tried by an all-white jury, concluding that the California Supreme Court set too high a standard for when a trial judge should question a prosecutor's explanation for removing jurors.
In U.S. courts, attorneys are allowed to remove potential jurors in two ways. The first is called a challenge for cause, where the lawyer has to offer a specific reason for removal, such as when a juror is married to a police officer in a case involving an officer.
The second is called a peremptory strike, where lawyers are permitted to remove a juror based simply on a hunch or intuition. States generally limit the number of peremptory strikes -- in a capital-murder trial in Louisiana, the limit is 12.
In the last 40 years, the Supreme Court has issued four major decisions aimed at limiting the ability of prosecutors to use peremptory strikes to exclude someone from a jury who is the same race as the defendant. Over time, the court has attempted to tighten the process, acknowledging that the problem continued despite its prior rulings.
In 2005, Justice David H. Souter, writing for the majority in a ruling that overturned a death sentence in Texas, felt compelled to observe that "the very integrity of the courts is jeopardized" when there is racial bias in jury selection.
The setting of the Snyder case is Jefferson Parish, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Named for Thomas Jefferson, the parish is "familiar with racial divisions and appeals to race," noted veteran defense lawyer Stephen B. Bright in his Supreme Court brief on Snyder's behalf. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected to the Legislature from the parish in 1989 as a Republican.
Trouble for defendants
The parish is considered a particularly tough place to be a defendant in a criminal trial. In the mid-1990s, the Louisiana Supreme Court Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts held a hearing where Denise LeBoeuf testified about her experiences as a public defender in Jefferson. "Sitting judges used the 'n-word' in conversation in the courtroom," she said.
LeBoeuf also said that some prosecutors, including Williams, periodically bought each other special awards when they won murder trials. Each plaque, she testified, had "a mock hypodermic needle, a big one, along with the date and the name of the defendant who had been sentenced to death."
In 2003, the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center (now the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center), which represented defendants in death penalty appeals, released a study of 390 trials and more than 13,000 potential jurors, showing that over a nine-year period Jefferson Parish prosecutors used peremptory strikes to throw blacks off juries more than three times as often as whites.
Jefferson Parish District Atty. Paul D. Connick Jr. blasted the study as politically motivated. He said that his prosecutors did not make decisions based on race, and said only one of his office's verdicts had been overturned because of jury-selection misconduct.