Walt Handelsman: Jeff Landry Moving Forward

As the Louisiana’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Jeff Landry has a duty to help advance justice for all of the state’s citizens.

In opposing a change to a Louisiana legal rule designed to stack the odds against the accused, Landry has shirked that duty. This fall, voters will get a chance to champion the reform Landry is unwilling to embrace. We hope they ignore Landry’s lead and do the right thing.

At issue is Louisiana’s 10-2 jury rule, which allows juries to convict defendants of serious crimes, including murder, with the approval of just 10 members of a 12-person jury. Only Louisiana and Oregon allow nonunanimous jury decisions for serious crimes. Not even Oregon permits defendants to be convicted of murder unless all the members of a jury agree.

America’s justice system is grounded in the principle that a defendant’s guilt must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. For centuries, that nation’s citizens have depended on the unanimous decision of 12 of their peers to establish such certainty.

Louisiana’s departure from that principle originated in the 19th century, when leaders feared that black jurors might disrupt the will of the white majority. The state law was changed to allow nonunanimous felony convictions.

Why AG Jeff Landry favors keeping this controversial law, despite GOP supporting change

That shameful legacy of the Jim Crow era remains on Louisiana’s books to this day. A yearlong Advocate study of the practice found that it disproportionately disadvantages black defendants.

But as we’ve pointed out before, any citizen of Louisiana, regardless of race, should be concerned that we have a looser standard here for taking away a citizen’s liberty.

That’s why many of Louisiana’s conservatives, who have a long tradition of skepticism about government power, joined with other reform advocates in pushing to change the 10-2 rule. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a measure this year for the Nov. 6 statewide ballot that, if approved by voters, would abolish 10-2 jury decisions. The Louisiana Republican Party, Americans for Prosperity and Louisiana Family Forum have endorsed the proposal.

But Republican Landry, who’s mulling a run for governor, says he prefers to keep the 10-2 rule, although he declined to be interviewed by The Advocate on his position. His chief deputy, Wilbur Stiles III, says his boss believes the 10-2 rule “makes for quicker and easier administration of the system.” He also said that allowing 10-2 convictions “makes for a more relaxed” jury selection process since the vote of one lone juror can’t change an outcome.

But the cause of law and order calls courts to make sure that the right person has been taken off the street for a crime. There’s nothing about that important work that should be quick, easy, or relaxed.

Are Louisiana prosecutors somehow less competent than their national peers, requiring a lower bar to convict criminals? That seems to be the underlying premise of Landry’s position. It’s an insult to the rule of law, and voters should reject it.