Louisiana prisoner Bobby Sneed last week filed a federal lawsuit against the state parole board and its Executive Director Francis Abbott alleging that the board violated his civil rights and ignored state law when they rescinded his parole this month over an alleged drug overdose in March, days before his scheduled release.
On May 10 the parole board voted to deny Sneed’s parole — which members had granted two months before — despite the fact that the disciplinary board at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where Sneed is imprisoned, had cleared him of all disciplinary charges related to the alleged overdose.
That decision was made based on evidence, including an alleged confession of drug use, that neither Sneed nor his attorney Thomas Frampton were allowed to see before the parole board vote. In fact, according to the suit, medical records indicate that after being admitted to a hospital in late March, he was not being treated for a drug overdose. A doctor subsequently interviewed by Frampton said that he wouldn’t have been able to confess to drug use because he was unable to answer their questions about his condition when he was admitted.
In the suit, filed on Friday in the federal court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, Frampton suggests that Abbott and members of the Louisiana Committee on Parole violated state law and due process requirements to keep him in prison. The decision was made at least in part in retaliation for going to the media with his case over the past several weeks, a violation of his First Amendment rights, according to the suit. On Monday, Abbott told The Lens that he will not comment on the pending litigation.
“This case involves a bizarre and lawless parole revocation unlike any other in Louisiana history,” the lawsuit says. Frampton is asking the court to enjoin the parole board from implementing its decisions that rescinded and denied Sneed’s parole.
Months of uncertainty after parole granted
Sneed was granted parole in March after 47 years behind bars following a conviction as a “principal to murder” for acting as a lookout in a 1974 Bienville Parish home robbery that left one man dead. The March parole hearing was brief — only 17 minutes long — and no one offered opposition to Sneed going free. Board members voted unanimously in favor of his parole.
But on March 25, just days before his scheduled release, Sneed collapsed. He was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for symptoms of pneumonia, hypoxia, post-cardiac arrest and COVID-19. Four days later, he was returned to the prison and placed on administrative segregation. Prison officials charged Sneed with a disciplinary infraction, possession of contraband, after drug tests allegedly revealed amphetamines, methamphetamines and opiates in his system.
The charge meant that the 74-year-old Sneed, who had previously suffered a stroke, faced parole revocation and the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.
In spite of state policy calling for a disciplinary hearing within 72 hours, Sneed was kept in segregation for more than a month before going before the prison disciplinary board on May 5. At the hearing, the lawsuit says, Frampton presented evidence indicating that prison officials fraudulently altered his drug screen form and mishandled his urine sample before sending it to an outside laboratory, raising doubts about the accuracy of the tests.
The lawsuit doesn’t detail the problems in the forms. But in an April 27 letter to the Department of Corrections, Frampton said the original forms contained details that were different than the versions presented by the prison to the disciplinary board, including about who handled the samples and whether they were refrigerated as required.
Frampton also notes in the suit that prison doctors gave him morphine before sending him to a hospital, evidence, he says, that they did not believe he was overdosing and an explanation for the opiates found in his system by the outside laboratory.
After deliberating for 10 minutes, the disciplinary board cleared him of the contraband charge. But board members immediately gave him a new charge: that he was in the wrong dorm at the time of his collapse. That charge was quickly dropped without a hearing on May 6.
That evening, according to the lawsuit, Abbott, the executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, called Frampton, telling him that he and the board still had the authority to revoke Sneed’s parole. Frampton pushed back, saying that state law required a formal notification of misconduct from the prison to the parole board in order to make that decision, which couldn’t happen because Sneed was cleared of disciplinary charges. But Abbott claimed he didn’t need a notification because the parole board was in possession of evidence that Sneed had used drugs.
Abbott tried to make a deal, according to the suit, offering to help resolve the issue if Sneed would go to drug rehabilitation treatment in Department of Corrections custody. Frampton did not agree because he was unable to communicate with Sneed at the time, had not seen the evidence Abbott against Sneed claimed to have and did not believe Abbott had the authority to make such an offer.
Abbott later admitted speaking with Frampton that night and discussing treatment options with him, but denied offering any such “plea deal,” claiming he did not have that authority.
“I’m not a decision maker in any way, shape or form with the board of pardons,” Abbott told The Lens last week. “I’m just the executive director. I serve as a liaison between the board of pardons and committee on parole, and its various stakeholders.”
The next day, May 7, Abbott emailed Frampton informing him that the board had voted to rescind Sneed’s parole and would rehear his case on Monday, May 10. In fact, no such board vote was taken. Abbott later told Frampton that the rescission was made unilaterally by board member Tony Marabella. Moreover, no other board members were informed, the decision was not shared with Sneed, and there were no audio recordings or minutes taken of Marabella’s decision, which Frampton alleges is against the law.
Frampton had not been allowed to consult with Sneed since his May 5 disciplinary hearing, meaning Sneed was not aware of any of the communications between his attorney and Abbott until his May 10 parole rehearing.
Board members at the hearing made contradicting statements on just what it was they were deciding. Marabella denied that he had already rescinded Sneed’s parole, suggesting that the hearing was not to reconsider whether to grant his parole but to formalize a rescission that Abbott repeatedly said had already happened several days earlier.
Sneed, who had not spoken to his lawyer since the previous week, was only allowed to consult privately with him for a few minutes during a brief recess during the May 10 hearing. Parole board members refused to allow Frampton to examine the purported evidence against Sneed and Frampton was not allowed to present new evidence.
The only evidence introduced at the hearing was brought up during a brief exchange between Marabella and Sneed, during which Marabella said he had reason to believe that Sneed had told hospital staff on the day he was admitted that he had used heroin. Sneed denied telling anyone that, saying he was unconscious at the time. He also denied using heroin, amphetamines or methamphetamines.
It wasn’t until after the hearing that Frampton received Sneed’s medical records from Lane Regional Medical Center, where he was taken after his collapse. Those records, which do not appear as an exhibit in the suit, “support the conclusion” that his collapse was caused by hypoxia, pneumonia and COVID-19, rather than a drug overdose, the suit claims.
The records also said he was too “lethargic” to answer questions about his illness. Frampton interviewed Dr. Jess Anderson, who said she remembered Sneed. According to the suit, Anderson said that because of Sneed’s condition at the time, it “didn’t make sense” that he would have confessed to drug use. She suggested that any reference to a confession that appears in his admission notes could have come by way of prison staff, who may have passed along a rumor about an overdose or simply made it up.
Suit claims retaliation for going public
Sneed’s case has received press coverage both locally and nationally since Frampton first went to the media, with Sneed’s permission, early this month. Along with The Lens’ coverage, the Libertarian-leaning news website Reason.com published a story that “garnered well over 150,000 ‘views,’” according to the lawsuit. The coverage included statements from Frampton and Sneed’s family that cast corrections officials in a harsh light.
Frampton alleges that the actions of Abbott the parole board were made in response to that. During the May 6 phone conversation between Frampton and Abbott, Abbott complained about the media coverage of the case and asked to be notified if The Wall Street Journal planned to cover it.
The suit also notes the timing of the parole board’s decision.
“Conspicuously, Mr. Abbott and the Committee on Parole took no adverse action against Mr. Sneed at any point between March 25, 2021 and May 6, 2021; only after Mr. Sneed engaged in protected First Amendment activity critical of Louisiana corrections officials did the Committee on Parole act,” it says. “If Mr. Sneed’s alleged drug use were an independently sufficient basis for acting to strip his parole, Mr. Abbott and the Committee on Parole would have acted at some point in the preceding 43 days, not only after Mr. Sneed was cleared of wrongdoing.”
Lens reporter Nicholas Chrastil contributed to this story.