Bobby Sneed pictured prior to and during his incarceration at Louisiana State Penitentiary. (Photos provided by family)

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections must release Bobby Sneed — a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — from its custody, a Baton Rouge judge ruled on Thursday afternoon.

The ruling was in response to Sneed’s lawsuit, filed earlier this month, that alleged he was being illegally imprisoned after the state parole board stripped his previously granted parole last spring.

The order for 74-year-old Sneed’s release was issued by 19th Judicial District Judge Ronald Johnson following a full ruling Johnson delivered orally. A transcript of the ruling was not immediately available. 

While the order says Sneed should be released “immediately,” under Louisiana law, Sneed must remain in prison for at least another 48 hours. And according to Thomas Frampton, a lawyer for Sneed, on Friday afternoon Johnson issued a stay of his ruling which will expire on Tuesday, November 22, at 5pm. Frampton also said that lawyers with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, representing the parole board, have filed a notice in district court that they will file a writ request with the First Circuit Court of Appeal to review Johnson’s release order.

Francis Abbott, the executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, who was named in Sneed’s petition, declined to comment on the ruling. Nor did a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Ken Pastorick, calling it a “Parole Board matter” in an email to The Lens Thursday evening.

“This is a Parole Board matter,” Pastorick wrote. “We would refer you to the Parole Board and the Attorney General’s Office. As this is in active litigation, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections has not comment on this matter.”

Representatives for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office did not respond to request for comment. 

Frampton said in a statement that he hoped Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections James LeBlanc, and Chair of the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole Sheryl M. Ranatza would “honor” Johnson’s order.

“The amount of time, lawyer-hours, and taxpayer money that has gone toward Bobby’s case is outrageous,” he said. “And it benefits no one. We’re praying that Secretary LeBlanc and Chairman Ranatza will do the right thing and honor Judge Johnson’s order.”

Sneed has argued that in stripping his parole last May, in an unusual proceeding, the board infringed on his state and federal due process rights, went against their own policies, and violated the state Open Meetings Law. He also argued that the board acted vindictively in retaliation to him speaking about his case with the press. 

Sneed was granted parole back in March, but just days before he was set to be released, he collapsed in the prison and was brought to a nearby hospital. There, he was treated for pneumonia, hypoxia, post-cardiac arrest and COVID-19. But prison officials alleged that they administered a drug test that showed Sneed was positive for amphetamines and methamphetamines. Rather than be released, Sneed was placed in solitary confinement pending a disciplinary hearing for over a month.

When a disciplinary board finally heard the case in May, however, Sneed was found not guilty of the charge. His attorney argued that there were inconsistencies in the prison’s disciplinary reports and that officials couldn’t prove that the urine that allegedly came back positive for drugs was in fact Sneed’s.

But following Sneed’s exoneration by the prison disciplinary board, one member of the parole board, Tony Marabella, moved to rescind Sneed’s parole anyway. That triggered another parole hearing. At that subsequent hearing on May 7, over objections from Sneed’s attorney, the board voted to keep Sneed in prison. 

At the hearing itself, the board indicated that they had additional evidence that Sneed had admitted to using drugs — but Sneed and his lawyer were not allowed to view that evidence. Nor was Sneed allowed to call witnesses or present evidence of his own. 

In his petition for habeas corpus — which he filed in state court last month after a federal civil rights lawsuit was tossed out on procedural grounds — Sneed argued that the process by which the board went about stripping his parole was rife with legal and procedural infractions. For instance, the board’s own policies state that prior to rescinding a prisoner previously granted parole, they must first receive notification from the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Sneed argues that never happened. 

In addition, Sneed’s attorneys have argued that under state law, the parole board is not given the power to “rescind” an individual’s parole at all, but rather can only vote to revoke it, which comes with more stringent due process requirements.

But lawyers with Attorney General Jeff Landry’s Office, who are representing the parole board, have argued that the court does not have the authority to review the decision to rescind if a prisoner has not been released from custody — even if in doing so the board violated its own policies. 

New disciplinary charge

As it happens, Sneed was again facing disciplinary charges at Angola for contraband after allegedly being found unresponsive by guards last week. According to a disciplinary report, on November 9, prison guards say they found Sneed unresponsive, shook him down, and found “one eye drop container with an unknown liquid substance in it.”

Sneed’s lawyer, Thomas Frampton, says he wasn’t notified about the disciplinary charge by the prison, has been denied confidential phone calls with Sneed, and was not informed of two additional disciplinary proceedings that took place where Sneed was instead represented by another prisoner. (Both of those hearings were apparently deferred, based on information contained in the disciplinary report.)

In a letter to Judge Johnson on Tuesday, Frampton said that he heard rumors that Sneed was being held in solitary confinement — known to Angola prisoners as “the Dungeon” — pending a disciplinary hearing, and then confirmed with the Department of Corrections. Frampton also said that neither he nor Sneed’s family had been given any information regarding what, if any, medical care Sneed has received after being found unresponsive. 

He urged Johnson to grant Sneed’s writ of habeas corpus, which he argued “may be necessary to save his life.” 

A spokesperson for the DOC did not respond to a request for more information regarding Sneed’s pending disciplinary charge.

Convicted of being “principal to murder” after acting as a lookout in a 1974 home robbery that left one man dead, Sneed was sentenced to life in prison, despite not having entered the residence where the murder happened. 

He is the only one involved in the crime who remains in prison today. 

This story has been updated with a statement from Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokesperson Ken Pastorick, along with information regarding a stay issued by the district judge and a notice of intent to file a writ request by the lawyers with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.

Nicholas 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...