If Corey Miller lived anywhere else in the United States, he wouldn’t be asking a judge to give him a new trial, because he would have gotten one automatically after the jury voted him guilty 10-2.
That doesn’t count as a hung jury in a Louisiana state court.
Miller, in his rapper days, rejoiced in the name of C-Murder, which proved prophetic. He was found guilty of shooting 16-year-old Steve Thomas at a Harvey nightclub in 2002, and is doing life at Angola. It is a major stain on our criminal justice system that a defendant can suffer such a fate when two jurors were convinced of his innocence.
Sure, those two jurors may well have been wrong, but prosecutors in any other state would have been required to try again. Even in Oregon, the only other state that accepts non-unanimous verdicts, 11 votes are needed for a conviction in a non-capital murder case.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow and tortured decision, upheld the Louisiana setup more than 40 years ago. Since then, it has declined to consider several challenges to its constitutionality, including one filed by Miller a couple of years ago, despite compelling evidence that majority verdicts render miscarriages of justice much more likely.
In the 48 states that require a unanimous verdict, defendants wind up acquitted about one third of the time when a retrial is required after juries vote 10-2 to convict, according to a study conducted by Purdue sociology professor Dennis Devine.
In asking state District Judge Steve Enright to grant a new trial, Miller’s attorney, Rachel Conner, alleges that one of the jurors who voted guilty did so contrary to her own conscience and merely to bring deliberations to an end. If Conner’s version of what went on in the jury room is accurate, it confirms what critics of non-unanimous verdicts have always alleged — that they encourage a rush to judgment rather than a scrupulous consideration of the evidence.
If Miller does get another trial, it will be his third. He was convicted in 2003, but that verdict was thrown out because prosecutors failed to divulge the criminal records of their key witnesses.
Miller is by his own admission no stranger to violence in nightclubs. He was awaiting retrial in Thomas’s murder when he was sentenced to 10 years after pleading no contest in 2009 to two counts of attempted murder at Club Raggs in Baton Rouge. But it seems incompatible with the principles underlying American justice that he can be locked up forever unless his guilt is established to the satisfaction of 12 jurors in a fair trial.
Since there seems no prospect that the Supreme Court will agree with that proposition, Conner’s task is to persuade Enright that the verdict was unsound even by Louisiana’s undemanding standards. Deliberations do indeed appear to have turned chaotic after juror Geralneigh Bazile brought a Bible into the room, in defiance of the rules, and, as she put it in an affidavit, “tried to share God’s word” and “help them see that Mr. Miller was innocent.”
“She was crying scripture, you know, at the top of her lungs,” one juror told Judge Hans Liljeberg. Naturally, the majority view was that Bazile was a bit of a nut, as some jurors evidently made brutally clear. Two, however, agreed with her that Miller was innocent.
One of them, Mary Jacob, nevertheless voted guilty, but wrote a note to Liljeberg explaining she did so just to get the trial over with. When Liljeberg ordered the jury to resume deliberations, Jacob again voted guilty, claiming that this time she really meant it. After the trial, however, she went to the press and changed her story again, claiming that she voted guilty for the sole purpose of sparing Bazile further abuse. “I was more worried about this little girl than I was about Corey Miller,” Jacob said.
Sometimes you have to wonder whether the right to trial by jury is all it’s cracked up to be.
In Louisiana, of course, it isn’t, because the U.S. Supreme Court bizarrely ruled, by a one-vote margin, that, although the Sixth Amendment applies to the states, and requires unanimous verdicts in federal cases, defendant’s rights may be diluted in Louisiana and Oregon. The other states prefer justice the traditional American way.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.