Share Button

A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

One of only two states in the nation that actually allows juries to render verdicts in felony criminal trials without all 12 jurors agreeing, Louisiana is long overdue in changing its jury system.

First, the system is steeped in racism. It is a remnant of Jim Crow—the post-emancipation de facto and de jure orders, rules and laws instituted by White supremacists to terrorize newly freed Blacks and relegate their lives to second-class citizenry.

In the wake of the 13th and 14th amendments, granting the right to vote to all Black men meant they had the right to serve on juries. To lessen the possible impact of Blacks votes in jury boxes, state leaders during the 1898 Constitutional Convention, concocted a scenario that made it legal for nine of 12 jurors to decide a verdict in a criminal trial. So even if a few Blacks found their way on a jury, they would likely be outvoted by the White members. Making sure Black men couldn’t sway trial outcomes, especially in cases where other Blacks were defendants, was especially important to White supremacists at the time. It was vital to keeping legalized slavery and filling chain gangs and cotton fields with Black prisoners.

In 1973, at another state Constitutional Convention, the number of votes needed to render a verdict was raised from nine to 10. But that was hardly a sufficient fix to a major injustice. And we have to wonder why the system wasn’t completely changed at that point. Perhaps the droves of Black men filling the state’s prisons, providing free labor and enriching those who invested in the prison industrial complex were just too much to give up.

Here we are some 120 years after 1898, and we are still mired in a system built on hate and discrimination. And the intended goal has indeed been accomplished. The numbers tell the story. Blacks Louisianans only comprise 32 percent of Louisiana’s population. Yet, they are 66 percent of state inmates and 74 percent of those sentenced to life.

You didn’t think Louisiana’s distinction as the prison capital of the entire world was an accidental feat . . . or that the disproportionate incarceration of Black people was some coincidence, did you? No, it is the direct result of deliberate, unfair and racist policies like our jury system, which, by the way, just hasn’t been working very well.

And that’s the second reason we say this system has to go. As Will Snowden, local public defender and founder of the Juror Project notes, Louisiana is also home of quite a few exoneration cases—52 to date since someone started keeping track.

Of course, it is possible for all 12 people to get a verdict wrong. When that happens, it is still egregious, but more likely that some other part of the system is to blame—poor lawyering, faulty forensic science, mistaken identifications or outright lying.

\But the jury system is supposed to be our fail-safe— or as close to one as we can get. Twelve regular folk sift through the testimony, the science, the evidence, relying on their minds, their guts, and maybe even their hearts to lead them to the right decision.

And in any other state except here and Oregon, the reasonable doubt of just one juror would be enough to ensure that an innocent man was not convicted. When 12 people have to agree it is a little easier to have confidence in a verdict and to trust our system.

But in Louisiana, an innocent man or woman can be sentenced to life in prison even if two people on a jury find enough reasonable doubt to vote “not guilty,” And make no mistake, that has been happening in deliberation rooms and courts throughout this state. An integral part of our criminal justice system is inherently flawed. The closest thing we have to a fail-safe is broken. It’s time we fix it.

One innocent person sentenced to prison—maybe even life—by a non-unanimous verdict would be one too many. In Louisiana, it’s happened at least 11 times . . . that we know about.

There have been 52 exonerations in Louisiana since 1991. In at least 11 of those cases, the defendant was convicted by non-unanimous verdicts. In other words, more than 20 percent of all Louisiana convictions that have ultimately resulted in exonerations were decided by non-unanimous verdicts. At least one, maybe two people on those juries saw flaws in those cases and voted “not guilty”; but they were ignored. Their voices went unheard. Their votes, nullified.

It is time for Louisiana to stop ignoring its citizens in many ways. The state’s jury system is chief among them. It is time to end this practice. It is a vestige of Jim Crow that remains standing, and we need to knock it down.

Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell, D-New Orleans, has moved us in that direction by sponsoring a bill that would allow Louisiana voters to consider a constitutional amendment to do away with the state’s non-unanimous jury verdicts. The bill made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 5-1 vote. But it still needs to pass the full state legislature—the House and the Senate—to make it onto a statewide ballot. That might be easier said than done, however, especially considering there was one vote against the bill in committee. Why any lawmaker would have a problem with voting to at least put the matter before the people of the state is beyond our understanding! But if there was one in committee, we suspect there are others.

State Sen. Bodi White, a Republican from Central, reportedly had concerns about more hung juries and the costs of new trials if non-unanimous verdicts were to disappear.

Uh, side-eye glance. Keeping the costs of trials and the number of hung juries to a minimum should be the least of our lawmakers’ concern. Those factors were not the real reasons behind constructing the faulty system, and they ought not to be barriers to taking it down.

Really, that’s all you got—more hung juries and the cost of retrials versus a more just and fair system; Mr. Bodi, it’s no contest. The cost! We say that whatever it is, it will be a small price to pay for undoing something that should have never happened in the first place. It is what we must do to ensure that our justice system is as just as it can be.

If Sen. Bodi White needs numbers, we have three for him that we can no longer live with— 1 and 10 and 1.

Just ONE person wrongfully convicted by the votes of 10 jurors is ONE person too many.

Share Button