by Anitra D. Brown
Most people are never happy to see it in the mailbox. It’s worse than a bill. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It reads, “JURY SUMMONS” in big bold letters, most likely in all caps, and is stamped with an official seal. Inside, there are directions, requiring you to show up at court on a certain date and at a specific time.
You get one those and after a bit of eye rolling and head shaking, instincts take over and thoughts typically rush to one singular goal—getting out of it.
But one local public defender has established a non-profit organization with the goals of changing the way folks look at jury duty and challenging the jury system itself.
Will Snowden says that it was his experiences inside the courtroom as a public defender—observing who was summoned and who showed up for jury duty, how jurors were chosen to serve from a pool of potentials and the impact juries have on the outcome of cases—that led him to start The Juror Project.
Of course, criminal laws, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and police officers all play critical roles in the system; but not one is more important than the one assigned to 12 ordinary men and women who deliberate information, determine verdicts and decide the fate of others.
When one stops to really think about it, jury duty is an pretty heavy weight to put on regular folk, some of who would rather not be there, even as others seemed hopelessly shut out of the room.
So as lawmakers and leaders throughout our communities and nation talk about criminal justice reform, Snowden believes the jury process ought to be a part of those discussions.
“I think the government can improve the way that we’re summoning people; and we, the community, can improve the way that we’re responding to this particular call. It is really a time for us to reconsider how our government should be promoting jury duty and how we, as the community, see this opportunity.”
Jury Duty, A Civic Duty
The Juror Project educates the community on how to reform their criminal justice system from the jury box, Snowden says.
“Essentially, The Juror Project (has) two main goals. The first goal is to increase diversity of the jury panels. The second is to improve people’s perspective of jury duty because not everybody loves jury duty. Many people try to get out of jury duty. What this project is trying to do is to remind the community of the power that we have in that jury deliberation room. It was a power given to us for a reason—to keep the system honest, to keep the system fair. Too often we are shirking the responsibilities of the civic duty even though it’s a lot of power that can be used in the right way to make sure our criminal justice system is operating in a fair manner.”
To that end, The Juror Project makes presentations throughout the community to groups and organizations that invite members of The Juror Project to talk about the criminal justice system and jury duty.
“We meet with pretty much anyone that is interested in this topic,” he says. “We’ve gone to churches, high schools, neighborhood associations, rotary clubs, law schools, universities—pretty much any gathering of people that has an interest in learning more about this civic duty. We’ll come and meet with you.”
Snowden adds that the presentation covers a variety of topics.
“We do talk about jury duty, but we also talk about our criminal justice system and the ways Louisiana has become one of the prison capitals of the world.”
One of the reasons the Juror Project is needed, Snowden says, is to heighten awareness of the importance of jury duty, especially within the Black community.
In short, diversity matters.
“There’s a tremendous amount of research that demonstrates that the increase in diversity is going to have an impact on the outcomes of cases. . . . diversity in that room actually leads to more fairness,” he says. “So for a quick example, there’s a study out of Caddo Parish in Shreveport where an organization looked at 300-plus trials over a 10-year period. What they were able to recognize is that when there were not more than two Black folks on the jury there were zero acquittals. That’s crazy—10 years, 300 plus trials, not more than two Black folk, and zero acquittals.”
Snowden adds that the same research indicated that when African-American representation increased to three or more Black people on a jury, the acquittal rate increased to 12 percent. When there were five or more Black people on the jury, the acquittal rate increased to 19 percent.
“So that’s direct a representation that having more diversity in that room is impacting the outcomes of the cases,” he says. “And as a society, we know that it’s important for corporations to have diverse boardrooms, it is important for universities to have diverse classrooms. And I think for the sake of fairness in our criminal justice system, we need to have diverse jury rooms as well.”
But increasing diversity is easier said than done. One element of the jury selection process that causes Snowden concern is how voir dire is used to eliminate jurors. Voir dire is the name of the process the involves the questioning of potential jurors by attorneys and sometimes judges to determine if prospective jurors have any biases that could prevent them from dealing with issues in a case fairly or if there is a reason not to allow a juror to serve such as prior knowledge of facts from the case; knowing any parties involved in the case including witnesses or attorneys; an occupation which might lead to bias; prejudice against the death penalty; or having had previous experiences similar to the case.
“The main goal of voir dire and jury selection is to find good jurors for a particular case,” he says. “So if I’m representing somebody charged with burglary and I find out that a particular juror’s house was burgled last night, they’re probably not the best person for this jury. Unfortunately we have some prosecutors who will ask questions like how many (prospective jurors) have had a bad experience with New Orleans Police Department. Inevitably, the majority of Black folks will raise their hand and we’ll talk about those bad experiences. And then the prosecutor will use that as a reason to remove that person for what is called legal cause. I don’t think that is what our system is really trying to promote. When we talk about promoting diversity through The Juror Project, we are talking about diversity of race. And we are also talking about diversity of experience, diversity of background, diversity of gender, diversity in every sense of the word. When we discount people’s experiences with New Orleans Police Department in a manner that says they aren’t going to be a good juror, I think that’s discrediting a lot of opinions in the community.”
That’s why The Juror Project provides insight to citizens on the importance of answering questions posed during voir dire accurately and with an open mind, helping them to not only appreciate the need to answer the call to serve as a jury, but what to expect once they are in the courtroom.
Bucking the System
While educating everyday people about the importance of the jury system and their civic duty to serve when called is a main component of The Juror Project, it is just one piece of the puzzle. Snowden also hopes to make inroads by challenging and changing the jury system, especially in Louisiana.
The way jurors are summoned is one area he believes needs attention.
In Louisiana, voter registration and DMV records are used to create potential juror pools.
“I think that is a flawed way of summoning people for jury duty,” says Snowden. “Not everybody is registered to vote and not everybody owns a car or has a driver’s license. Sure, we can use those lists; but when we look at the actual qualifications for the jury, those lists have absolutely nothing to do with the qualifications. We look at the Louisiana statute; and it says to be a qualified juror, you have to be a United States citizen, 18 years old, and understand the English language. The problem is when we use voter registration or DMV records we’re probably excluding 35 percent of New Orleanians. That’s not the best way to provide somebody with a jury of their peers.”
Snowden says he would like to see parishes across the state consider ways to improve the jury summonsing process to make it more inclusive.
“When we look at the state of Massachusetts, they have something that’s called the annual residents list. Essentially, they’re able to have a census for (each county), and then they summon jurors from that particular list. That’s a real-time list of representatives in that particular community. It doesn’t have a class element to it where owning a car might have a class element to it. And it’s really the best way to get a cross-section of the community. So in New Orleans we don’t have an annual residents list. But The Juror Project has had conversations with City Council about other lists could we use to supplement voter registration and to supplement DMV records. We have had conversations around utility bills or tax assessor bills, or other lists that are used for people in the city that would be more inclusive.”
Another major concern for The Juror Project is the non-unanimous jury system at work in Louisiana.
A non-unanimous verdict system is also used in Oregon courts. Those systems in both states have been challenged all the way the United State’s Supreme Court, with the nation’s highest court consistently ruling that non-unanimous verdicts do not violate due process or reasonable doubt. In fact, as recently 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court passed on an opportunity to even hear cases that challenged non-unanimous verdicts in Louisiana and Oregon.
That hasn’t stop Snowden and The Juror Project from highlighting the problems of non-unanimous verdicts.
“We talk about Louisiana being one of the prison capitals of the world,” Snowden says. “We’re also the exoneration capital of the world, which means our juries are getting it wrong. So I think that when we talk about jury duty, particularly in the state of Louisiana, we have to mention non-unanimous jury verdicts.”
In Louisiana, only 10 of 12 jurors have to agree for a verdict. In Oregon, the other state that allows non-unanimous jury verdicts, 11 of the 12 jurors must agree in order to render a verdict.
Snowden accurately notes that both of these practices are “rooted in hate”. In Louisiana, as a result of an 1898 Constitutional Convention that was held to determine how to invalidate the rights of freed Blacks, particularly Black men who could now vote and serve on juries, non-unanimous juries were devised as a tool nullify the voice of Black jurors. The end result of the convention—only nine of 12 juries needed to agree to render a verdict in a trial.
“And so, even if there were three Black people on the jury and there are nine White folks, the three Black votes wouldn’t count because all they would need is the nine. In Louisiana, it is a vestige of Jim Crow. It is rooted in racism to nullify the Black vote and to make it easier to convict Black folk. In Oregon, it is rooted in antisemitism.”
As for the impact of non-unanimous jury verdicts and exonerations, Snowden says that “11 people so far have been exonerated that were convicted by non-unanimous verdicts.”
Perhaps more telling is the estimated 80 percent of convictions in Orleans Parish rendered by non-unanimous verdicts. In each of those convictions, there was at least one, possibly two people that had a reasonable doubt. While Oregon runs a close second with its 11-1 verdict system, Louisiana stands as the only state in the country in which a jury can have two of its members vote non-guilty and still convict a person.
While changing the way jurors are summoned or doing away with non-unanimous jury verdicts may seem like uphill battles, it is important to note the jury system is a part of the criminal justice system. And like any piece of that system, it can be reformed. In fact, it has been changed over the years.
The right of every criminal defendant to have his or her fate decided by a jury of peers has not always been guaranteed. In fact, before the U.S. Supreme Courts 1968 ruling in Duncan v. Louisiana, Louisiana juries were only required in cases where the possible punishment was death or hard labor. But in Duncan, the Court declared that the right to a jury trial is fundamental. In cases in which the punishment exceeds six months’ imprisonment, it ruled, the due process clause of the 14th amendment required that the protections of the Sixth Amendment apply equally to federal and state criminal prosecutions.
Then after a 1973 state Constitutional Convention and in the wake of a period of racial unrest, Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law was changed to increase the number of votes needed for a verdict from nine to 10.
To learn more about The Juror Project, visit www.thejurorproject.org.