Amendment 2, a proposed change to the state constitution that would require unanimous verdicts before the government takes away your freedom, has won support across the political spectrum. Even Louisiana’s Democrat and Republican parties are backing the measure, which goes before voters Tuesday.
But polling shows a close contest, and in an age when it’s easy to spread falsehoods, there is a lot of misinformation out there.
So let's take a minute to vanquish some untruths.
False: Prosecutors like the current regimen, which requires only 10 of 12 jury votes to gain a conviction.
The truth: Some prosecutors support Amendment 2 and others are opposed. When the Legislature was considering the unanimous jury measure, the district attorneys’ association was initially opposed, but members were split, so the group decided not to take a position at all. Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett said the association was nearly united against unanimous juries. But when The Advocate polled all 42 Louisiana DAs, it found a different story. Of the 22 who responded, 10 support Amendment 2, including Baton Rouge’s Hillar Moore III and Jefferson’s Paul Connick. Eight were against and the rest were neutral.
False: If Louisiana requires unanimous verdicts, there will be so many hung juries that judges will not be able to handle all the retrials.
The truth: Louisiana doesn’t conduct many trials — fewer than 500 in a typical year — and there are very few mistrials. Pete Adams of the District Attorney’s Association said that Amendment 2 would increase mistrials by 50 percent. But statistics suggest that would add only about a dozen cases per year to the court docket — spread out over 42 judicial districts.
False: If Amendment 2 passes, the state will be forced to retry hundreds of convicts sent to prison by divided juries.
The truth: Amendment 2 is not retroactive. The greater threat is that if Amendment 2 fails, courts may get involved. A judge in Sabine Parish has already ruled that Louisiana’s split verdict laws are unconstitutionally discriminatory. Judges prefer that voters clear up discriminatory practices. If courts rule against divided jury convictions and apply the decision to past cases, Louisiana will have to recreate hundreds of prosecutions. In many cases the state does not even have records of how the jurors voted, so we don’t know who was sent away without a unanimous verdict.
False: Louisiana adopted split jury verdicts for efficiency, not racism.
The truth: Louisiana once required unanimous juries, just like other states. Divided jury convictions date to the Jim Crow era, when white leaders worked to disenfranchise black voters and diminish the voices of black jurors. At first, Louisiana allowed convictions with only 9 of 12 jurors agreeing. The current practice of requiring 10 jurors was a compromise negotiated when delegates rewrote the Louisiana constitution in 1973 and 1974.
Louisiana deserves better than to have a lower standard of justice than other states. Our neighboring states, like Texas and Mississippi, could hardly be accused of being soft on crime. They manage to lock up criminals with the blessing of unanimous juries, and we can too.