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The Advocate wins first Pulitzer Prize for series that helped change Louisiana's split-jury law

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The Advocate was awarded its first Pulitzer Prize on Monday for reporting on the racial impacts of Louisiana’s unique laws allowing juries to convict defendants without a unanimous verdict.

The Advocate’s coverage set the stage for Louisiana’s voters to amend the state constitution, seven months later, to demand unanimous verdicts in criminal cases.

Monday’s award marks the first Pulitzer Prize in the state since 2006, when The Times-Picayune received two for its courageous coverage of Hurricane Katrina. It is the sixth time the century-old award has gone to a Louisiana news organization.

The Advocate, which is 177 years old, has always been locally owned. For most of that span, it was owned by descendants of Charles P. Manship Sr., who were newspaper proprietors in Baton Rouge from 1909 to 2013. At that time, it was purchased by Dathel and John Georges, who grew the company’s footprint by expanding the daily newspapers in New Orleans and Lafayette.

"My wife Dathel and I are proud of our editorial team for delivering quality journalism in these challenging times," John Georges said after the award was announced.

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The Pulitzers are journalism’s most prestigious awards. They were endowed by Joseph Pulitzer, a 19th-century Hungarian immigrant who owned newspapers in New York and St. Louis and was known for crusading journalism on behalf of the powerless. The prizes have been awarded since 1917 by Columbia University.

"This is a tough time to be a journalist, but it’s the best time ever to be a journalist at The Advocate because we have the best newsroom in Louisiana and the best owners in the land," said Peter Kovacs, the newspaper's editor.

The Advocate’s Pulitzer was for local reporting.

Four of Louisiana’s five prior Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to The Times-Picayune. The other was won by The New Orleans States, which was later absorbed by The Picayune.

The Advocate’s five-part special report, entitled “Tilting the Scales” debuted on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018.

It was overseen by the newspaper’s managing editor for investigations, Gordon Russell, and written by Russell, Jeff Adelson, Jim Mustian, and John Simerman. For Russell, Monday marked his third Pulitzer honor. He was involved in The Times-Picayune’s Katrina coverage.

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The editorial staff — consisting of editor Peter Kovacs, Danny Heitman and Lanny Keller — also was named a 2019 finalist in editorial writing for “persuasive editorials that prompted Louisiana voters to abolish a Jim Crow-era law that undermined equal justice in the jury system."

The Advocate reporting shined a bright light on the troubling origins and continuing impacts of Louisiana’s unusual law, rooted in the Jim Crow era, that allows for criminal convictions when as many as two of 12 jurors vote to acquit.

To conduct its analysis, the newspaper reviewed about 3,000 cases to build a large database of jury trials from around Louisiana. The data showed that black defendants were 30 percent more likely than white defendants to be convicted in split verdicts. A second database created by the newspaper found that black people were substantially underrepresented on juries, and that black people who do serve as jurors are much more likely to disagree with a verdict to convict than their white counterparts.

The Advocate published its findings in April and May 2018, as the Legislature began debating a bill, sponsored by state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, that would allow Louisianans to vote to change the state constitution and require unanimous verdicts in the future.

Initially, the bill looked like a long shot, in part because of vocal opposition from Louisiana’s powerful district attorneys. But after The Advocate’s coverage began, the DAs opted to stay neutral on the bill, and it gained bipartisan momentum and passed both houses of the Legislature by the required two-thirds margin.

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The Advocate's "investigative reporting was essential in educating not just my fellow legislators but also the public," said Morrell. "The reporting put names and faces to those affected by (the trial system) and without it, it would have been impossible to be successful, not just with the legislators but in getting the public to vote for it."

Louisiana voters overwhelmingly supported changing the law, passing the constitutional amendment by a nearly 2-1 margin. The measure won more than 900,000 votes and carried 61 of 64 parishes.

"We won the biggest prize of all when Louisiana’s law got changed by the voters in November," Russell said. "That was a testament to the power of journalism."

“Tilting the Scales” was also honored with a George F. Polk award, another prestigious journalism prize.

"You helped shine a light on an injustice in our state," Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said via Twitter on Monday. "Louisianans stepped up to make a change and we are all better for it."

In addition to Russell, Adelson, Mustian and Simerman, a cast of other journalists also played key roles in bringing “Tilting the Scales” to life: Cartoonist Walt Handelsman created an online animation based on the reporting; Dan Swenson built print and online graphics; Max Becherer shot photos; Kyle Whitfield, Jeff Nowak and Orlando Flores created the online presence for the reporting; and Jennifer Brown, Jay Martin and Tiffany Segura handled copy editing and page design.