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

A Baton Rouge judge on Thursday ordered long-time state prisoner Bobby Sneed released from prison, the second release order the judge has issued in Sneed’s lawsuit against the Louisiana state parole board in the past several weeks. Thursday’s order, from 19th Judicial District Court Ronald Johnson, followed a Wednesday ruling in Sneed’s favor from the Louisiana Supreme Court finding that the board acted illegally when it stripped Sneed’s parole in May. 

The Louisiana Department of Public and Safety and Corrections must release Sneed from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola immediately, Johnson ruled on Thursday.

After an earlier federal suit was dismissed, Sneed filed suit against the parole board in state court in October arguing that he is being held in prison illegally. The suit followed an unusual series of events that began with the board’s unanimous vote to grant his freedom last spring, then reversed that decision — in what Sneed’s lawyers contend was an illegal meeting — two months later. 

Johnson had previously ordered Sneed released following a hearing in the case last month, but he delayed the release to provide time for lawyers representing the parole board to ask the First Circuit Court of Appeal to review his decision. The First Circuit overturned the release order late last month, and Sneed remained in prison. 

But on Wednesday, the state Supreme Court overturned the First Circuit ruling. The basis for the decision was that when the parole board voted to strip his parole last May, he was already past his release date set in the previous hearing. At the time, he was still being held in prison due to alleged drug use, an infraction that the prison disciplinary board eventually found meritless.

Even so, because his original release date had passed, the justices ruled, he was entitled to a full revocation hearing, which the parole board conducts when a parolee who has been released is accused of violating the terms of their parole. Parolees are allowed greater due process rights at a revocation hearing than at the “rescission” hearing the board conducted in May, during which Sneed was not allowed to present witnesses or evidence. 

“Petitioner’s limited liberty interests attached once his release date passed,” the unsigned decision read. “For that reason, we find rescission was not available here. Rather, procedural due process dictates that petitioner was entitled to a revocation hearing rather than a rescission of parole.”

In his ruling, Johnson said that Sneed should have been afforded the opportunity to cross-examine adverse witnesses, had evidence against him disclosed, and appear in front of a “neutral and impartial” hearing body. 

“Because it is undisputed that no such procedures were followed when Mr. Sneed’s parole was stripped — indeed, Respondents’ position was that they did not need to afford Mr. Sneed a proper revocation hearing — this court finds that Mr. Sneed was deprived of ‘liberty’ without due process of law, and his ongoing confinement offends the Fourteenth Amendment,” Johnson wrote. 

It is unclear whether or not lawyers with Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, who are representing the parole board, will ask the Louisiana Supreme Court for a rehearing, or whether or not they will again ask the First Circuit Court of Appeal to review the release order. The AG’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. Francis Abbott, director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole declined to comment on Thursday. 

State law mandates a 48 hour delay for a prisoner to be released when a writ of habeas corpus is granted, or until a petition for an emergency writ is denied by an appeals court, whichever occurs first. But because the parole board’s writ was denied on Wednesday by the Louisiana Supreme Court, Johnson ruled that there should be no delay in releasing Sneed. 

The Department of Public Safety and Corrections did not respond for comment on Thursday afternoon regarding when exactly he would be let out. 

Parole granted, then stripped away

Sneed, who is 74-years-old and has been locked up for nearly 50 years, was unanimously granted parole in March. But just days before his scheduled release date that month,  he collapsed in prison and was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. 

At some point, prison officials administered a drug test to Sneed, which they said came back positive for amphetamines and methamphetamines. The executive director of the parole board, Francis Abbott, sent an email to staff telling them to halt paperwork for Sneed’s release, and Sneed was returned to prison to await a disciplinary hearing.

Though Department of Public Safety and Corrections policy mandates that disciplinary hearings take place 72 hours after charges are filed, Sneed waited in restrictive housing for more than a month before going before a disciplinary board. When it eventually took place, his lawyer raised issues related to the chain of custody on the urine sample, as well as inconsistencies in the reports written by prison guards.  Ultimately, Sneed was found not guilty of the contraband charge.

But it didn’t matter. Days after the disciplinary board’s decision, a single member of the parole board — Tony Marabella — moved to strip Sneed’s parole anyway. 

Sneed was given a new parole hearing on May 10. While he was able to speak briefly on his own behalf — and denied using drugs — he was unable to present evidence or call witnesses during the hearing. And the evidence the parole board claimed to have against Sneed was not provided to him or his attorney. The board voted unanimously to strip Sneed’s parole.

Sneed’s attorney, Thomas Frampton, has argued that the actions of the parole board violated both state and federal law.

Frampton charges that the board violated Sneed’s free speech rights by keeping him in prison allegedly in retaliation for his decision to go public with his case. The Lens first reported on the case last May, speaking to Frampton and members of Sneed’s family. 

And because his release date had already passed, Frampton argues that his parole could not be rescinded, but rather it could only be revoked. At a revocation hearing, according to Louisiana law, he would be able to “present proof, including affidavits and other evidence, in support of his contentions.” 

He also argues that the parole board did not even follow its own policies when it rescinded his parole. The policy states that the board must first be given notice of a disciplinary infraction by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary — James LeBlanc — before initiating rescission. According to Frampton and Sneed, because he was acquitted in his disciplinary hearing, that never happened. 

Sneed first filed suit in federal court against the parole board in May. That suit was tossed out for procedural reasons, though the judge noted that the allegations were “extremely troubling.” 

Sneed then filed a petition for habeas corpus in state court in October, which led to Thursdays order for him to be released.

The parole board has argued that because the decision to grant parole is discretionary,  the courts don’t have any jurisdiction over their decisions or the procedures they employ when determining if someone should be released. 

Even prior to Sneed’s acquittal by the disciplinary board, Frampton argued that it did not make sense to keep him in prison for alleged drug use when the parole board had determined he was no threat to public safety just weeks prior. He said that Sneed could get treatment outside of prison. 

A Vietnam veteran, Sneed was convicted in 1975 of being principal to second-degree murder when he acted as a lookout during an armed robbery during which a man was killed. Despite not having entered the residence where the killing took place, Sneed was sentenced to life in prison. He is the only person involved in the robbery who, as of Thursday afternoon, remained locked up.

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...