Felons with new voting rights should also get to serve on juries, Louisiana lawmaker says

A Louisiana lawmaker is filing a bill to make people on probation and parole for felony convictions eligible for jury duty.

The jury that convicted a black Baton Rouge man last summer of raping a teenager will be summoned back to court in October concerning allegations that two white jurors made racist comments during the man's trial.

Ad hoc state District Judge Bruce Bennett on Wednesday scheduled a hearing for Oct. 4 in the case of Sedrick Hills, who was found guilty last August of forcible rape and another sexual assault-related charge. 

Having jurors return to court is extremely rare. A jury shield law is intended to preserve the finality of jury verdicts and keep the nature of their discussions from the public.

But the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal last month ordered that a hearing be held in the case "to determine whether the alleged statements played a role in reaching the verdict and, if so, whether the effect was so prejudicial as to require a new trial."

Hills, 44, was convicted by votes of 11-1 on the rape count and 10-2 on the other count. The jury was composed of eight white jurors and four black jurors.

The Baton Rouge-based 1st Circuit said jurors can be called to testify at the hearing.

Bennett reminded Hills' attorney, Robert Tucker Sr., and prosecutor Sonya Cardia-Porter that a gag order remains in place prohibiting them from contacting the 12 jurors who decided the case and the alternate jurors who heard all the evidence but did not take part in the jury's deliberations.

Both sides indicated they’ll request that all the jurors and alternates be subpoenaed for the hearing.”

The racial allegations came to light when a black female juror sent a notarized affidavit to Tucker's office several days after Hills was convicted. Tucker subsequently included the affidavit in a motion for a new trial.

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Marion Lathan stated in the affidavit that she heard a white male juror say, "Let's convict this n***** already, I am ready to go play golf." She claims another white male juror replied, "The n***** should have just taken a plea deal anyway."

Lathan, who voted not guilty on both counts against Hills, claimed the racially charged comments came during a lunch break the day before the jury deliberated and found him guilty. She also stated that a group of white male jurors bullied and intimidated the other jurors.

State District Judge Trudy White, who presided over Hills' trial, ruled in February that Hills was entitled to a new trial. White said she found Lathan to be credible.

After the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office appealed, the 1st Circuit threw out White's granting of a new trial.

The appellate court said White correctly concluded that the statements contained in Lathan's affidavit were "sufficient to … allow further judicial inquiry," but the judge abused her discretion "in relying solely on the statements of the complaining juror to conclude there was racial bias."

Prior to White's ruling, Tucker had asked that the entire jury be subpoenaed so they could be questioned. The District Attorney's Office opposed that request, citing the jury shield law that is meant to preserve the confidentiality and finality of jury verdicts, and the confidentiality of discussion among jurors.

White has since moved to a civil seat in the 19th Judicial District Courthouse. Bennett, who is filling the criminal seat she once held until a permanent replacement is elected, said Wednesday he intends to preside over the October hearing unless either side objects.

Hills remains free on bail.

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.