Bobby Sneed, shortly after the May 2021 vote to deny his parole.

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed Louisiana prisoner Bobby Sneed’s civil rights suit against the state parole board, finding that Sneed may be legally barred from pursuing his claims in federal court. But in his 36-page ruling, Judge John deGravelles of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge wrote that he found the allegations in the lawsuit — that the board and its director ignored state law when they pulled Sneed’s parole in May, allegedly in retaliation for Sneed speaking to the press about his case —  “extremely troubling.” 

Sneed, who is 74 and has been behind bars for nearly 50 years, was unanimously granted parole back in March of this year. But days before his scheduled release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Sneed collapsed in prison, and was taken to a nearby hospital. There, he was treated for pneumonia, hypoxia, post-cardiac arrest and COVID-19. But prison officials alleged that a drug test also came back positive for amphetamines and methamphetamines, and gave him a write up for possessing contraband. He was held at Angola pending a disciplinary hearing

When that hearing took place in May, Sneed was cleared of the disciplinary charges. According to his lawyer, Thomas Frampton, who represented him at the hearing, accounts from prison officials were inconsistent, and the chain of custody records with regard to Sneed’s drug test were incomplete.

But despite Sneed’s acquittal on his disciplinary charges, the parole board decided to rescind his parole anyway.  At a contentious rehearing days later that took place over Frampton’s objections, members of the parole board alleged they were in possession of evidence that proved Sneed used drugs in prison — specifically, evidence that Sneed had confessed to hospital personnel. Frampton and Sneed were not allowed to view the purported evidence prior to the proceeding. 

Following the hearing, Sneed filed a civil rights suit against the members of the state parole board and its Executive Director Francis Abbott in mid-May. The suit alleged that the parole board went against its own stated procedures, and in doing so violated Sneed’s right to due process, and also that the board’s actions were in retaliation for Sneed and his lawyer going public with his case. In addition, the filing contained testimony from a doctor at the hospital where Sneed was treated, who said Sneed could not have confessed to using drugs, given his condition when he was admitted for treatment.

The complaint “portrays Defendants as petty tyrants who are accountable to no one and who exercise their power without regard to the wellbeing of those within their jurisdiction,” deGravelles wrote in his Tuesday ruling on the case. “If true, Defendants’ flagrant disregard of procedural norms in the two hearings at issue is, at best, irregular, and, at worst, reprehensible.”

Still, deGravelles ruled that the civil rights action as put forward in Sneed’s complaint was barred by legal precedent, and that based on his current complaint, he needed to go through state court proceedings before filing in federal court. 

“However terrible the Court finds Defendants’ alleged conduct to be, it is bound to apply controlling precedent,” he wrote.

The judge dismissed the suit without prejudice, which allows Sneed to refile. He wrote that Sneed could file an amended complaint in his court making “an attack on general parole procedures” — not just the procedures that were followed in his own case. To litigate his own case alone, deGravelles said, Sneed will need to file a habeas corpus petition in a state court.

In a statement issued by a spokesperson, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the parole board, said that it “respect[s] the federal judge’s decision to follow the rule of law.” Francis Abbott, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a Tuesday phone call, Frampton said that he had not determined how he would proceed with the litigation.

“It’s clear that the judge is deeply troubled by the factual allegations in our complaint, and has wrestled carefully with the law. We need to examine his opinion a little more before deciding on next steps,” Frampton said. 

Sneed, a Vietnam veteran, was convicted in 1975 for being “principle to murder” after serving as the lookout in an armed robbery at a Bienville Parish home that left one of the residents dead. Sneed never entered the home where the murder took place, and according to a parole packet put together by the LSU Law Clinic, he did not have a criminal history. But he was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

In recent years, Sneed has had a series of health issues, including a stroke in 2005 that impacted his ability to walk and talk. 

Prior to his disciplinary hearing, Sneed’s lawyer argued in a letter to Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc in May that even if he had used drugs in prison, it was wrong — and a waste of taxpayer money — to keep him in prison when the parole board had already determined he was no threat to society. 

“Bobby will in all likelihood die in prison, costing Louisiana taxpayers $24,670.35 per year until that day arrives,” Frampton warned of a potential parole rescission.  “There is a far better option. Bobby has a robust support network—including family members and nonprofit organizations — eager to welcome him home.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...