On Nov. 23, less than an hour before longtime prisoner Bobby Sneed was scheduled to be released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — per a state judge’s order — a panel of appellate court judges reversed the decision and tossed out Sneed’s petition for habeas corpus.
The ruling on Tuesday was the latest setback in Sneed’s months-long battle with the state parole board that began when board members stripped his previously granted parole in May, alleging that he used drugs in prison. That was despite the fact that he was acquitted of the underlying drug charge by the prison’s own disciplinary board.
Sneed argues that the parole board’s actions violated his constitutional rights, state law, the parole board’s own policies, and that he is now being held in prison illegally. Sneed’s attorney, Thomas Frampton, has said that the parole board moved to strip Sneed’s parole in retaliation for going public with his case. The Lens first reported on Sneed’s case in May, interviewing Frampton and members of Sneed’s family.
In their request that the state First Circuit Court of Appeal review the judge’s release order, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office — who are representing the parole board — argued that Frampton committed an ethical breach in deciding to speak to the press. They wrote that his decision to be interviewed while the case was still going through the prison disciplinary process was an attempt to “improperly influence adjudicative proceedings.”
But the parole board’s primary argument against Sneed’s release was that state courts cannot review parole board decisions or procedures — an argument a panel of First Circuit judges seemed to accept in a very brief opinion.
“The ruling of the trial court ordering respondent Bobby Sneed released on parole is vacated,” the ruling reads. “The authority to grant or deny parole is constitutionally vested in the Committee on Parole.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office applauded the appeals court’s decision to overturn the district court’s ruling, which the office said had “usurped the authority of the Governor and the Committee on Parole” in a press release last week.
Landry also cast the decision as necessary for public safety.
“As crime rates rise in Louisiana and across the country, my office will continue to do all we can to protect Louisiana citizens and ensure they are not subject to further harm from violent offenders,” Landry said in the release.
But on Monday, attorneys for Sneed filed a request with the Louisiana Supreme Court to review the decision, calling it “dangerous and radical,” and suggesting it could be used to condone a variety of illegal behavior by the parole board — including racial discrimination and kidnapping.
“If the Board of Parole expressly decided to grant a White prisoner parole because of his race while denying a Black prisoner parole because of his race, in clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, would a Black prisoner denied parole be allowed to challenge her imprisonment?” the filing asks. “The opinion below answers ‘no.’ Or if a single member of the Board of Parole ordered the kidnapping of a recently paroled individual, smuggling him back into prison, but labeled such an action a ‘rescission’ of parole, would a prisoner be allowed to challenge his imprisonment? The opinion below answers ‘no.’”
Parole granted, then stripped
The ordeal has brought up not just questions regarding the authority of the courts over parole board matters alleged to be illegal, but the decision to keep an elederly man in prison over supposed drug use in the first place.
Even prior to his hearing in front of the disciplinary board on the contraband charge back in May, Sneed’s attorney, Thomas Frampton, argued that it was a waste of resources to keep him incarcerated even if he had used drugs, and that it would benefit everyone for him to be released and get treatment in the community. He warned that Sneed — who has previously suffered a stroke — would likely die in prison if his parole was stripped.
“Nobody is disputing that Bobby Sneed is no longer any sort of risk to public safety,” Frampton told The Lens in May. “So ultimately, the question is, do we want taxpayers to pay to continue incarcerating Bobby in a situation where we know he won’t get any sort of help? Or do we want private charities to help somebody live out their last years of their life, in the free world with their family, and get the medical treatment that they need?”
Sneed, a Vietnam veteran, is 74 years old and has been in prison for nearly half a century. He was given a life sentence in 1975 for being a lookout in a robbery during which a man was killed. Sneed never entered the residence where the murder occured, but he is the only one involved in the crime who remains locked up.
In March, Sneed was unanimously granted parole in a hearing that lasted less than 20 minutes. But days before his release, he collapsed in prison and was taken to a nearby hospital where he was treated for pneumonia, hypoxia, post-cardiac arrest and COVID-19.
At some point, prison officials also administered a drug test, which they said came back positive for amphetamines and methamphetamines. Rather than be released, Sneed was transferred back to Angola, where he would await a disciplinary hearing on a contraband charge for alleged drug use.
But when the disciplinary board hearing was eventually held in early May, Sneed was acquitted on the contraband charge after Frampton presented evidence calling into question the chain of custody on the urine sample, among other issues.
Still, following the hearing, a member of the parole board independently moved to “rescind” Sneed’s parole. Days later, over the objections of Sneed’s attorney, another hearing was held, and they unanimously voted to keep Sneed in prison, citing undisclosed evidence that they had received from the Department of Corrections suggesting Sneed had in fact used drugs.
Sneed has argued that the process was illegal in several ways. Parole board policy dictates that in order to start the recission process they must first be contacted by DOC Secretary James LeBlanc. Sneed argues that never happened. In addition, Sneed alleges that under state law should have been afforded the opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence at the second parole hearing — an opportunity that was not afforded to him.
The case currently working its way through state appeals courts is Sneed’s second lawsuit over the parole board’s decision. After a federal civil rights suit filed by Sneed against the parole board was tossed out for procedural reasons, his attorneys filed the petition for habeas corpus in state court.
Last month, 19th Judicial District Ronald Johnson heard oral arguments on whether or not he had jurisdiction to hear Sneed’s claims. He was expected to issue a ruling that would determine whether the case would proceed.
But instead, to the frustration of lawyers with Landry’s office, Johnson decided to grant Sneed’s petition outright. He issued an oral ruling from the bench on November 18, and signed an order mandating that Sneed be immediately released from prison.
Johnson said that the decision by the disciplinary board to acquit Sneed should have been binding on the parole board, and therefore Sneed should have been released once that decision was made. He said that he was not “reviewing” a parole board decision, but addressing their illegal action.
“The Court looks at the acquittal by the secretary administrative body with the disciplinary board of Mr. Sneed as a determination which is binding on the state and the parole board and any subsequent litigation between Mr. Sneed and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections as a matter of law,” Johnson ruled.
Having found state law violations, Johnson did not address Sneed’s constitutional claims of First and Fourteenth amendment infractions.
Despite his order that Sneed be released immediately, state law mandates that prisoners granted habeas corpus should not be released for 48 hours — giving the state a chance to file a supervisory writ to the appellate court — and Johnson eventually issued a subsequent order that stayed his release until Tuesday, November 23, at 5pm. If the First Circuit Court of Appeal failed to take action by that time, Sneed would need to be released.
Lawyers for the parole board filed their emergency petition with the First Circuit just hours before the deadline on Tuesday, arguing that the district court did not have the authority to make the methods by which the parole board makes its decisions, and that Judge Johnson ignored procedural requirements by issuing a ruling on the merits of Sneed’s petition without first addressing whether or not he had the authority to make a ruling in the first place.
They requested that the court issue an emergency stay on the district court’s order that Sneed be released, and that they ultimately throw out the case.
Hours later, the court did the latter. The ruling to toss Sneed’s case was signed by First Circuit judges J. Michael McDonald, Walter I. Lanier III and Elizabeth Wolfe.
In a writ to the Louisiana Supreme Court, lawyers for Sneed said the panel fundamentally misunderstood the nature of Sneed’s claims.
“Mr. Sneed has never argued that the Board of Parole made a ‘wrong decision’ or incorrectly assessed that he needed more rehabilitation,” the filing reads. “He argues that they broke the law.”