Mississippi’s poor standing occasionally saves Louisiana from being dead-last in basic indicators for quality of life. But when it comes to the number of lifers serving prison terms, Louisiana can’t even count on its neighbor to make it look better by comparison.
Louisiana has more inmates per capita than any other state – and twice as many serving life without parole as Mississippi, its nearest rival. An obvious reason for that huge disparity is Louisiana’s strange law that allows defendants to be convicted of felonies without a unanimous jury verdict. In Louisiana, just 10 out of 12 jurors must conclude that a defendant is guilty to secure a conviction. Only one other state, Oregon, uses the 10-2 rule for felony cases, although in Oregon, defendants cannot be sentenced to life on such a split verdict.
Louisiana’s sinister practice grew out of a state constitution adopted after the Civil War, when officials feared that black jurors might frustrate the will of the white majority. That shameful tradition continues to this day, and its effects are pretty clear.
The 10-2 rule makes it much easier for prosecutors to convict defendants. Defendants and their lawyers know this, which makes them more inclined to take plea deals for lengthy prison sentences without ever going to trial. And without the need for unanimity, jurors are also less compelled to reach consensus by agreeing on reduced charges with less jail time.
Those basic realities conspire to put more of Louisiana’s citizens behind bars, so it’s little wonder that the state has become the incarceration capital of the world. As a yearlong Advocate review of 10-2 jury verdicts reveals, the practice disproportionately disadvantages black defendants.
Although defenders of the 10-2 rule embrace it as a useful tool in the fight against crime, abandoning the need for jury unanimity in felony trials works against law and order. It holds Louisiana to a lesser standard of justice, which can only diminish the stature of the legal system. Dispensing with unanimity increases the likelihood that innocent people are behind bars while the real culprits remain free to commit other crimes. And the grim practice of 10-2 also unnaturally swells the state’s prison population, draining resources that Louisiana can better use to truly increase the safety of its citizens.
Those who are charged with serious crimes should face the full scrutiny of society’s judgment. For centuries, in communities across America, that ideal has obligated jurors to speak with one voice – and compelling certitude – in taking away the liberty of one to protect the liberty of the many. In weakening a cherished tenet of civil society, the 10-2 rule answers to an expedience born of bigotry, not equality before the law.
We urge lawmakers to approve legislation putting a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot so that voters can abolish the 10-2 rule.
Louisiana’s citizens, regardless of race, can no longer settle for a cynical approximation of justice, which is ultimately no justice at all.