House Bill 346 by state Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace, is redemptive at its core. His proposal would establish a remedy in Louisiana for the approximately 1500 citizens who have been convicted by a nonunanimous criminal jury verdict.
It’s an act of redemptive justice because it seeks to restore, even at this late date, the protection of a unanimous jury verdict to those deprived of this foundational principle of constitutional law in our state for almost 150 years.
The legislation proposed would amend the Code of Criminal Procedure to provide an additional ground for post-conviction relief for a person who has been convicted by a nonunanimous jury verdict.
HB346 would also require a parole hearing for anyone serving a sentence for a conviction by a nonunanimous jury within 180 days of providing acceptable documentation of the nonunanimous jury verdict to the Department of Corrections.
One of the great moments of recent Louisiana history was the unprecedented bipartisan support for Senate Bill 243 adopted by the Legislature in 2018, and the subsequent statewide ratification of Amendment No. 2 (by an almost 2-1 margin), which restored unanimous criminal jury verdicts in Louisiana.
However, Amendment No. 2 was prospective only and did not apply to anyone charged with a crime committed prior to Jan. 1, 2019. For those people, the nonunanimous jury law was still in effect.
Yet change was on the horizon, and on March 18, 2019, a petition for writ of certiorari challenging Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury law was granted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Oct. 7, 2019, oral argument was heard in the case of Ramos v. Louisiana.
On April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict, thereby striking down Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury law, which had been enshrined in our state constitution since 1898.
The Supreme Court, however, did not address the question of the retroactivity of Ramos for those currently serving a sentence for a conviction by a nonunanimous jury. This issue will be decided later this spring in the Edwards v. Vannoy case currently pending before the high court.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, the Louisiana Legislature can complete the work begun by the citizens of our state in 2018.
HB346 would establish an orderly and fair process to review the cases of all those affected by Louisiana’s unconstitutional law, and help our state close this shameful chapter of our history.
By passing HB346, the Legislature can vindicate the cause of liberty and restore the fundamental constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict to those denied that right under a law that was unconstitutional, unfair and unjust.
As a former district attorney myself, I am well aware of the hard work facing the judges, prosecutors, defense counsel and others who work in our criminal justice system, as they meet the challenge of reviewing the cases of all those affected by nonunanimous jury verdicts.
Nevertheless, let us not shrink back from seeking justice, and in the words of Justice Neil Gorsuch in Ramos, “perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.”
We are more than equal to the task. Let’s pass HB 346.
Ed Tarpley is the former district attorney of Grant Parish.