Jury box

A state law allowing people with past felony convictions to serve on juries isn't being followed in a swath of courts across Louisiana, threatening to bring proceedings to a halt and prompting some attorneys to argue that their clients aren't getting fair trials.

Since the law’s passage by the Louisiana Legislature in 2021, at least five courts — including those in Shreveport, Baton Rouge and New Orleans — have sent erroneous summons or questionnaires suggesting that people convicted of felonies cannot serve on juries, according to documents and interviews with court officials.

Meanwhile, a report released last week found that the majority of the state’s parishes and court systems have failed to update public-facing information on the eligibility of potential jurors with records, though it's not clear if they have changed their policies and procedures.

The law, Act 121, allows Louisianans to serve on juries so long as they are not under indictment, incarcerated via home confinement or on probation or parole for a felony in a five-year period before their summons. In theory, the act opened the door to jury service for thousands of people with felonies on their records, though the exact number impacted is tough to ascertain.

But the law’s execution has been scattershot at best.

A widespread issue

Notified by local advocacy group Voice of the Experienced, known as VOTE, that its summonses appeared to exclude people with felony convictions, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court last month deferred its jury pools, postponing as many as 15 jury trials through February.

Other courthouses across the state could also be faced with delays or appeals.

At least four other courts in the state — the 1st Judicial District Court, which covers Caddo Parish; the 19th Judicial District Court, which serves East Baton Rouge; the 25th Judicial District, which serves Plaquemines Parish; and Claiborne Parish, which is part of the 2nd Judicial District Court that also includes Bienville and Jackson parishes — have also failed to update their summons or questionnaires, according to documents and interviews with officials.

A court webpage in East Baton Rouge Parish says erroneously that people with felony convictions are ineligible to be jurors, and a questionnaire provided to prospective jurors asks whether they have been convicted of a felony.

East Baton Rouge Judicial Administrator Kevin Bolds, whose office maintains that webpage, mails questionnaires to prospective jurors and screens them online, on Thursday acknowledged that the materials have not been updated to reflect the 2021 law and said his staff is in the process of updating them.

He declined to say when the office learned of the law change.

Researchers at California State University, Long Beach published a report last week showing that 35 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes kept the now-defunct language on their websites saying people with felony convictions couldn't be on jury pools.

Of Louisiana’s 42 district courts, just nine displayed correct jury qualifications. Ten displayed inaccurate, outdated information; 23 offered no publicly available information at all. 

While the mistakes are likely the result of faulty procedures for staying abreast of law changes, systematic exclusions across the state raise constitutional concerns for defendants and residents, legal experts say.

Advocates argue the inclusion of people with felony convictions on juries leads to fairer trials — and some research bears this out: Jurors with felony convictions can “outperform” their counterparts, encouraging longer and more thoughtful deliberations. And while many Americans dread jury duty, at least one study shows those with felonies — people who, in Louisiana, are disproportionately Black men — often idealize it. Black men are historically underrepresented on Louisiana's juries.

Ripple effects across state courts

The problem that came to light last month in New Orleans by VOTE created ripples throughout the court system. Multiple motions were filed attempting to quash the improperly drawn jury pools and one, defeated on Wednesday, sought a new trial for a man who had been convicted by a jury summoned with the erroneous letters.

A roster of other districts could imminently face similar challenges in the coming weeks as they awake to their own errors.

In addition to Orleans and East Baton Rouge, Caddo Parish’s judicial administrator, David McClatchey, acknowledged Caddo’s jury questionnaire was outdated. It currently asks potential jurors whether they are under indictment or have been convicted of a crime other than a traffic violation — but offers no information about who is eligible to serve on a jury despite their felony convictions. 

When potential jurors appear at the court, they are asked questions about their convictions, McClatchey said.

“That can be difficult to find out,” he said. “How do you know when their parole date ends?”

In Claiborne Parish, a notice to prospective jurors included in its summons instructs residents they cannot serve if they’ve been convicted of a felony and not pardoned by the governor. 

Judge Walter May acknowledged the form contained errors. But May said that since 2021, when he took the bench, only two people have responded to summons asking to be excused because they had a felony conviction.

“I didn’t do anything with those,” May said. “I accepted it and went on.” It’s unclear whether those two people were properly excused. 

Data shows murky picture of who's excluded

Legal experts posit that harried court staffers who were battling pandemic-related complications and rising caseloads may have simply missed the legislation. 

But measures exist to limit potential errors: Organizations such as the Louisiana Judicial College, an arm of the Louisiana Supreme Court, and the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association hosted in-person seminars on Act 121 and sent out the materials via email, spokespeople for the organizations said.

Due largely to decentralized record-keeping, it’s not clear how many men and women since August 2021 have received erroneous summons across the state — and how many more disregarded them or were ultimately removed from lists of eligible potential jurors.

Orleans Parish has determined that at least 340 people with felony records were removed from the court’s eligible juror lists. The court could not say how many more had received summons but never contacted the court because of the summons’ language.

There, some judges and prosecutors — who have already begun to hear arguments over the court’s erroneous summons and its improperly drawn jury pools — have said that the numbers are a drop in the bucket and that juries were nevertheless fair to defendants.

'Is the trial then seen as less than legitimate?'

In 2021, the most recent year for which Louisiana Supreme Court data on the subject is available, courts in the state held 377 trials. Last year, Orleans Parish criminal court held 69 trials, with 27 convictions, data from the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office shows

While only a handful of those convicted could try to use the jury error in an attempt to win a new trial ahead of their prison sentencing, others could wield the mistake in appeals as they fight to have their convictions tossed, legal experts predict. 

“Certainly anytime a trial has a flaw or an error, that could impact the outcome,” said Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor who studies incarceration.

She pointed to the constitutional protections people are entitled to: the right to counsel, the right to not self-incriminate — and the right to a jury of one’s peers.

“When one of those elements is out of whack, you have to wonder: Is the trial then seen as less than legitimate?” she said. 

Louisiana isn't the only state confronting this issue. In 2020, California passed similar legislation, but its rollout was disjointed.

Research shows that by January of this year, half of California's counties still maintained inaccurate or outdated information about who with a felony conviction could serve on juries.

“What we tend to focus on is changing the law,” said James Bannill, a criminologist and the lead author of the research report that detailed mistakes on Louisiana court websites. “But the problem is that laws become ineffectual if we don’t also focus on the administration of change.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include information about jury summonses in Plaquemines Parish.

Email Jillian Kramer at jillian.kramer@theadvocate.com.