An aggressive campaign is ramping up to educate Louisiana voters about a proposed constitutional amendment that will be decided this fall — potentially reversing a Jim Crow-era law that allows felony convictions without unanimous agreement from jurors.
Louisiana is one of only two states that allows so-called "split-jury" verdicts in felony trials. Here, a person can be convicted of a felony if just 10 of 12 jurors agree that a defendant is guilty.
The effort to win passage of a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot and end non-unanimous guilty verdicts in Louisiana has drawn support from an unlikely, broad coalition that is uniting frequent foes. It's backed by the Louisiana Republican Party, Americans for Prosperity, the Louisiana Family Forum, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the New Orleans-based Voice of the Experienced, among others.
In the coming weeks, voters are likely to see digital campaign efforts, as well as high-profile advocates hitting the local luncheon and banquet circuits to promote the effort.
"It's time for Louisiana to turn the page," former Grant Parish district attorney Ed Tarpley, a key voice in support of the effort, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday. "It's time for Louisiana to put this relic of the Jim Crow era in the past."
After rounds of hearings, the Louisiana Legislature, with bipartisan support, agreed earlier this year to put the issue up for a state-wide vote of the people.
Gov. John Bel Edwards says he supports the effort to require that juries must return unanimous verdicts for convictions in Louisiana felony tr…
No organized campaign has emerged to oppose the November ballot item, and those who have been vocal in the debate over the issue say they know of no plans for one.
If approved by a majority of voters, guilty verdicts would require agreement from all 12 jurors starting Jan. 1, 2019. The amendment says the law would not apply retroactively.
"Louisiana stands at a crossroads," said Tarpley, a conservative Republican who said he made it his mission to undo the law after reading a book about its post-Civil War origins and aim to disenfranchise newly-freed slaves. "We as a people stand at a crossroads."
In television shows and movies, a lone juror who disagrees with a guilty verdict can trigger a hung jury and a new trial for a defendant.
Tarpley said he suspects that most people are not aware that it's different in Louisiana.
"Most people believe we have the law that every other state has," he said. "Most people get their legal education from CSI."
"I think there is widespread ignorance of this law," he added.
The Unanimous Jury Coalition, a group of largely liberal community groups, has named Norris Henderson, a formerly incarcerated person who was convicted by a non-unanimous jury, as its statewide director of its organizing in favor of the amendment.
"Louisiana is an outlier," Henderson said in a statement. "If (17) percent of people on a jury think you are innocent — even when there is that kind of reasonable doubt, you can still be convicted."
A first-of-its-kind analysis conducted by The Advocate this spring found that the state's allowance of non-unanimous convictions ultimately impacted the length of jury deliberations and disproportionately impacted black defendants.
"It hangs like a cloud over the criminal justice system of this state," Tarpley said.
For the last 120 years, Louisiana has had an unusual and long-standing allowance for split jury verdicts in felony cases.
But others argue that the focus on the history could distract from how it may impact the safety of Louisiana residents.
During legislative hearings on the proposal, Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier voiced his concerns about its passage. "If someone could show some data to indicate that unanimous verdicts are more reliable, I wouldn't object to it," he said on Monday.
Even more concerning to DeRosier is that he believes that, even though the proposed amendment says it is not to be applied retroactively to cases tried before 2019, that provision will be challenged in court.
"I think it's more than a possibility, you are going to see it," he said.
If a court ultimately determines that it must be applied retroactively, it would trigger a wave of retrials for people who have been convicted on split-jury verdicts over the years, DeRosier said.
DeRosier said he has not been contacted by anyone considering a formal campaign in opposition of the proposed constitutional amendment ahead of this fall's vote and he knows of no efforts to attempt one.
Tarpley said that by holding onto the law, the state is depriving people rights that the U.S. Constitution framers cited as crucial to democracy.
"Every person in Louisiana has been deprived of the full protection of the right to trial by jury," he said. "It was an evil and wicked law. There is no doubt about it."
No official polling on the issue has been released, but Tarpley said an internal poll conducted in mid-May found half of respondents were already favorable to the proposal and even more said they would vote for the amendment when they were provided information about Louisiana's status as one of only two states that allow split-jury verdicts and the origins of the law here.
"My hope and prayer is if we can educate the public and tell the story of how we got this law and what the impact has been we can persuade enough people for it," Tarpley said.