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

After nearly half a century in prison and a months-long legal battle with the Louisiana parole board, Bobby Sneed, a former prisoner of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, was released from custody on Friday after the parole board agreed to a settlement in federal court. 

Under the terms of the settlement, Sneed has agreed to drop his state and federal lawsuits against the board. He must also complete ​​a 28-day drug treatment program. And the board has agreed to halt a parole revocation proceeding — for alleged drug use while in prison — against Sneed. 

“Based on Mr. Sneed’s…representation that he has requested drug treatment programming, his acknowledgement that he has a drug problem, and his ongoing willingness to receive drug programming, the Louisiana Committee on Parole accepts this acknowledgement, agrees to Mr. Sneed completing the substance abuse rehabilitation program as a condition of parole, and agrees that no further revocation proceedings or adverse parole action … would be instituted against him due to any personal drug use or other non-criminal purported parole violation occurring prior to the date of this agreement,” the settlement reads. 

The agreement represents a stark change of position for the members of the board, who have for months diligently fought to keep Sneed locked up — rejecting settlement offers, appealing multiple orders for his release, and just last month issuing a warrant for his rearrest after he was released from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.  As recently as November, Attorney General Jeff Landry — whose office represented the parole board —  cast the 75-year-old Sneed as a “violent offender” who, if released, would threaten the safety of Louisiana citizens and contribute to rising crime rates. 

For Sneed, however, the terms are essentially what he has been advocating for since last spring when prison officials first alleged he had used drugs in prison — after he had been granted parole in March last year but before he was actually released. At the time Thomas Frampton, Sneed’s attorney, wrote a letter to the Louisiana Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, James LeBlanc, urging officials to halt disciplinary proceedings, and offering to make in-patient drug treatment a condition of Sneed’s parole.

The prison went ahead with the proceedings, but in a May hearing Sneed was acquitted of the alleged offense by the prison’s disciplinary board. Still, days later, in an unusual move — and one that Frampton says violated state policy — the board stripped his parole anyway, citing the very same offense that prison disciplinary officials ruled unfounded. It was a move that led to drawn out litigation in state and federal court, and one which the Louisiana Supreme Court ultimately ruled violated Sneed’s due process rights. 

Last month, following the state Supreme Court ruling, Sneed was released from Angola per a state judge’s order. But he was immediately rearrested and sent to West Feliciana Parish jail, pursuant to a warrant issued by the parole board based on another alleged drug infraction that occurred while Sneed was at Angola. The board indicated that they would initiate revocation proceedings against Sneed, prompting him to file a new habeas corpus petition in federal court — again alleging that the parole board’s actions were illegal. 

That petition is what ultimately led to the settlement agreement reached last week and finalized on Monday.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, Frampton questioned the motives of the parole board:

“If the Parole Board cared about Bobby’s constitutional rights, he would have been out March 29,” when he was first set to be released last year, Frampton said. “If they cared about drug treatment, he would have gotten some in prison. If they cared about taxpayers’ money, they would have taken our December offer to drop his civil rights claims. But in the end, I think the appearance that there was an ongoing conspiracy to deprive Bobby of his civil rights — a federal felony — was the final straw”

Francis Abbott, the executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole, declined to comment on Sneed’s release or the settlement. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, along with a spokesperson for Landry’s Office, did not respond to requests for comment.

Parole granted, then stripped

Sneed was convicted in 1975 in Bienville Parish for his role as a lookout during an armed home robbery during which a man was killed. Though he was two blocks away from where the actual killing took place, Sneed was charged with being “principal to second degree murder” and sentenced to life in prison. 

A Vietnam veteran, Sneed had no prior criminal history before the incident, according to a parole packet prepared by the LSU Law Clinic ahead of Sneed’s March parole hearing last year. And when he went up for parole, parole board members were impressed with his prison record. In less than 20 minutes they unanimously granted his parole. 

But days before his scheduled release, Sneed collapsed in prison. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for a range of conditions, including pneumonia and COVID-19. The next day, while he was still in the hospital, Francis Abbott, the executive director of the parole board, sent an email telling a member of his staff to halt paperwork on Sneed’s release. 

At some point prison officials administered a drug test, which found that Sneed was positive for amphetamines and methamphetamines. When Sneed was discharged from the hospital, he was brought back to Angola, and sent to solitary confinement to await a disciplinary hearing for a contraband write-up.

Sneed was in solitary for over a month before his hearing. During that time, the parole board took no official action with regards to Sneed’s parole — presumably waiting on the results of the disciplinary hearing to make a determination. 

But when the disciplinary hearing took place, he was acquitted of the charge after Frampton raised questions regarding the chain of custody of Sneed’s urine sample and what he alleged were fraudulently altered documents related to the drug test. Prison officials then announced a new disciplinary charge against Sneed — alleging that he was in the wrong dorm the day he collapsed. But that write-up was dropped the next day.

Still, in a single-member action, a member of the parole board — Tony Marabella — moved to rescind Sneed’s parole. A new hearing took place days later, during which members of the parole board claimed to have evidence that Sneed had used drugs in March. But they did not provide that evidence to Sneed or his attorney, and did not allow him to call witnesses or present evidence of his own. In a unanimous vote, they stripped Sneed’s parole. 

Following the hearing, Frampton called the decision “cruel and senseless.”

The move by the parole board would lead to months of litigation in state and federal court, where Sneed argued that the parole board had violated his due process and First Amendment rights, in addition to their own policies.  Because Sneed’s release date had already come and gone, his lawyers said that he was at the very least entitled to a full revocation hearing where Sneed would have been allowed to call witnesses and present evidence.  They also argued that the parole board did not follow its own internal policies when moving to rescind Sneed’s parole. 

Prior settlement offers

While the litigation between Sneed and the parole board has been highly contentious, a recent filing by Sneed’s lawyers in the case shows that he had made offers multiple times to go to drug treatment since the board stripped his parole back in May — none of which were acceptable to the parole board. 

In late June, Sneed offered to drop all litigation against the board if they agreed that upon the completion of an in-custody drug treatment program Sneed would be released on parole. Alternatively, he offered to make outpatient treatment in Baton Rouge a condition of his parole. 

More than a month later, in August, the parole board declined the offer, saying that they would only “request he be put in programming and we will schedule him with a hearing once he is eligible” and that they could not “guarantee any outcome of any hearing.” 

By October, Sneed apparently still was not receiving any drug treatment in prison. According to the recent filing, Frampton texted a lawyer for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Jonathan Vining, inquiring again about a settlement agreement.

“Bobby STILL hasn’t gotten any drug treatment in DOC custody despite us asking (which, remember, was the whole reason he needed to be kept locked up ostensibly),” Frampton wrote to Vining. 

On Dec. 9, after Baton Rouge Judge Ron Johnson, who was presiding over Sneed’s state case, ordered Sneed released for the second time, Frampton reached out to the parole board again. This time, he said that Sneed was willing to drop all further legal claims for illegal imprisonment against the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and parole board if they would agree not to appeal the order. 

“No matter what happens next in Bobby’s case, he has promising legal claims for damages against both your and [Department of Public Safety and Corrections attorney Jonathan Vining’s] clients for his false imprisonment from March 29 to the present,” Frampton wrote in an email. “But, as we’ve repeatedly said, he’s more interested in his liberty than anything else. I think if your clients agreed to respect the judgment of the Louisiana Supreme Court and Judge Johnson (and agreed not to take further adverse action against him)—which, to be frank, doesn’t seem like they’re giving up a ton—he would be willing to waive those potential claims. But if you’re insistent upon filing more emergency writ applications or applications for rehearing in the next couple hours, there’s no reason for him to give up his claims.”

But after acknowledging the offer, the parole board went ahead and filed an appeal.  Under the terms of Monday’s federal settlement, Sneed retains the ability to file for damages. 

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...