What We’re Saying: It’s time for Louisiana to Get Rid of Non-Unanimous Verdicts

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—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 one or two could be called to jury duty and have the right to serve.

To lessen the possible impact of this fact, state leaders during the 1898 Constitutional Convention, 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 in fact vital to keeping legalized slavery and filling chain gangs and cotton fields with Black prisoners. In 1973, another state Constitutional Convention, the number of votes needed to render a verdict was raised from nine to 10.

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 classification as the prison capital of the entire world was accidental feat . . . or that the disproportionate incarceration of Black people was some coincidence? It is the direct result of incongruent, 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 the exoneration capital, which means our non-unanimous juries are getting it wrong.

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 that would 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 even one vote against the bill in committee. Why  any lawmaker have a problem with voting to at least move the topic further and put it before the people of the state is beyond our understanding!

State Sen. Bodi White, a Republican from Central, reportedly had concerns about there being more hung juries and the costs of new trials if the law changes.

Really, more hung juries and the cost of retrials versus a more just and fair system. Mr. Bodi, it’s no contest. 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, 10 and 2.

Just one person wrongfully convicted by the votes of 10 jurors while two others saw reasonable is ONE person too many. 

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