The Advocate was honored Tuesday with a George Polk Award for its "Tilting The Scales" series, which examined the effects of Louisiana's unusual law allowing juries to convict defendants even if as many as two jurors disagreed with the verdict.
The newspaper’s reporting, published in April and May, led to a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts, bringing Louisiana into line with other states and the federal court system. The amendment was approved by nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters in November and went into effect Jan. 1.
The Polk awards are given out by Long Island University and are among the most prestigious national journalism honors. According to the organizers, they "are conferred annually to honor special achievement in journalism," with "a premium on investigative and enterprising reporting that gains attention and achieves results."
There were 16 Polk Award winners announced across a variety of categories. The Advocate won in the category of State Reporting. The other organizations honored include The New York Times, ProPublica and the Tampa Bay Times.
The Advocate’s reporting found that Louisiana’s law, with roots in the Jim Crow era, continued to exert a racially disparate impact today. The law's impacts were poorly understood because state and local officials do not track split jury verdicts — in fact, The Advocate found that the jury's vote was not part of the record in a large proportion of cases.
1. How an abnormal Louisiana law deprives, discriminates, drives incarceration: Tilting the Scales
The newspaper built a database by hand of thousands of jury trials from around the state and found that 40 percent of trial convictions came with at least one juror dissenting. Such split verdicts were 30 percent more likely when the defendant was black.
The newspaper also built a database of prospective jurors covering roughly 1,000 cases where the eventual vote of the jury was known. That data showed that black jurors were substantially underrepresented in jury pools, and that they were more likely than whites to be eliminated as potential jurors.
When it came time to vote to convict or acquit, The Advocate found that black jurors were about 2.5 times more likely than white jurors to vote against conviction. But because of the law allowing split verdicts, their votes often did not count.
For the last 120 years, Louisiana has had an unusual and long-standing allowance for split jury verdicts in felony cases.