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

Bobby Sneed, a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola whose parole was taken away earlier this year before he could be released, appeared Tuesday in state court in Baton Rouge for a hearing on his petition alleging that his continued imprisonment is illegal.    

Sneed, who has been in prison for nearly five decades, was granted parole in March in a unanimous vote by members of the state parole board. But following an allegation that he used drugs, the parole board voted in May to keep him in prison, even though a prison disciplinary board had already dismissed the drug charges. Sneed’s lawyers now argue that the parole board violated a host of state and federal laws when they stripped his parole, and that it was done in retaliation for Sneed going public with his case.  (Sneed previously filed a federal suit over the matter, but that was dismissed in July.)

Tuesday’s proceedings did not address the merits of Sneed’s case yet, only whether the court is authorized to review the process by which Sneed’s parole was stripped. Though state law doesn’t generally give state courts the authority to review parole decisions, Sneed’s attorneys argue that the issue is the allegedly illegal means by which the board went about reversing their original determination. 

But from the outset, 19th Judicial District Judge Ronald Johnson seemed troubled by Sneed’s case. 

“I don’t know what that is — if you call it a hearing or call it a lynching,” Johnson said of the proceeding in which the parole board voted to deny Sneed’s parole. 

In court on Tuesday, Sneed, a Vietnam veteran who at 74 years old has a head of grey hair, sat handcuffed at a table with his lawyers in an orange prison jumpsuit with chains around his waist. He had been transported from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to attend the hearing. 

Sneed was convicted of being “principal to murder” in 1975 for acting as a lookout during a home robbery that left one man dead. Unlike some of his co-defendants, he never went inside the home, but Sneed is the only person involved in the crime who remains in prison today. 

Parole granted, then stripped.

Sneed was unanimously granted parole in a March hearing that lasted less than twenty minutes.  But days before his scheduled release later that month, he collapsed at Angola. He was transferred to a nearby hospital and treated for pneumonia, hypoxia, post-cardiac arrest and COVID-19. At some point, prison guards administered a drug test. It came back positive for amphetamines and methamphetamine.

A day after Sneed collapsed, Francis Abbott, the executive director of the state parole board, emailed a staff member telling them to “hold off on any paperwork” related to Sneed’s release.  

Sneed was eventually transferred back to Angola where he was held in administrative segregation pending a disciplinary hearing. He had been written up for contraband. Despite a policy that a prisoner must be given a disciplinary hearing within 72 hours following a write-up, Sneed remained in segregation for over a month.

When the disciplinary hearing finally took place in May, Sneed’s lawyer produced evidence that prison staff fraudulently altered forms related to his drug test, mishandled urine samples, and could not explain when the drug test was actually administered. Ultimately, Sneed was found not guilty of the contraband charge. (The board then instituted a new charge alleging Sneed had been in the wrong dorm at the time he collapsed, but that charge was dropped the next day.)

Still, one member of the parole board, Tony Marabella, contacted Abbott, and moved to have Sneed’s parole rescinded.

Sneed’s lawyers argue the move violated parole board policy, which requires the board must first be notified by the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections of a prisoner’s infraction before they move to rescind. They say there is no evidence that took place.

They also argue that, despite board policy, state law does not allow the parole board to “rescind” a prisoner previously granted parole at all. Instead, state law allows parole to be “revoked,” a process with more stringent due process requirements. 

Sneed was given a new parole board hearing at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 10, which he and his lawyers were informed of at 11 a.m. on Friday, May 7. That too, his lawyers argue, violated the state open meeting law, which requires at least 24 hour public notice — not including weekends, holidays — be given prior to a meeting taking place. Sneed’s attorneys argue that under a separate provision in state law, the date of the announcement should not count in the calculation, meaning that the notice clock didn’t even start running until after Sneed’s hearing had already begun. 

The May parole board hearing took place over the objection of Sneed’s attorney, Thomas Frampton, who said that he had no time to call witnesses or consult with his client. 

The parole board voted unanimously to deny Sneed’s parole. While they did not present any evidence at the hearing, the board said its decision was based on an alleged confession to using drugs that Sneed had made while being admitted to the hospital. Sneed denied both using drugs or confessing to anything. And a doctor at the hospital where he was taken later told Frampton that Sneed was not in any condition during his admission to tell medical staff anything about his condition. 

Arguments over jurisdiction

At the court hearing on Tuesday, lawyers with the Louisiana Office of the Attorney General representing the Louisiana Parole Board argued that even if the parole board violated laws or their own policy, because Sneed had not already been released from prison, the actions of the board were discretionary and therefore could not be challenged in state court under a habeas corpus petition.

“With respect to the procedural mechanism, we would submit that there really is no procedural mechanism, quite frankly, that’s appropriate in the circumstances, because the legislature and the Louisiana constitution do not provide for a review of the parole board’s decisions,” said Christopher Walters, an attorney representing the parole board.

Judge Johnson pushed back, saying that Sneed was not just challenging a parole board decision, but alleging that his constitutional rights were violated by the board’s allegedly unlawful action. 

“I’m not talking about whether the board grants, does not grant parole or the eligibility for parole,” Johnson said. “I’m talking about constitutionally protected guarantees that he is entitled.”

“With respect to his ‘rights’ as to parole, the applicant for parole has no constitutional rights,” Walters said.

“I am actually floored by the statement that Mr. Sneed has no constitutional rights,” Frampton responded.

“I am too, I am too,” Johnson said.

Johnson did not make any ruling on Tuesday, but ordered the lawyers on each side to submit further written arguments by next Monday. 

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...