Louisiana’s state Senate has done the right thing in passing a bill giving voters the chance to improve the way juries decide felony cases. We urge the House to follow suit.
At issue is Louisiana’s shameful practice of allowing juries to convict defendants of felonies without a unanimous verdict — something done in only one other state, Oregon. Senate Bill 243, authored by state Sen. JP Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, would put a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot that, if approved, would make nonunanimous jury verdicts for felony cases in Louisiana a thing of the past. State Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, has filed an identical bill in the House. To go before voters, the amendment would have to gain approval by at least a two-thirds majority in the House, as it did, quite remarkably, in the Senate.
The past is exactly where Louisiana’s legal tradition of nonunanimous jury verdicts for serious crimes should be. It grew out of rampant racism after the Civil War, when the state’s white majority, fearing that black jurors might upset the status quo, approved a constitution allowing felony verdicts without unanimous consent. The sinister change was a perversion of a cherished legal principle, embraced in almost every court in the land, that reasonable doubt cannot be eliminated unless all 12 members of a jury agree.
That safeguard of liberty is one that any American, regardless of color, creed or station in life, should welcome. But as a yearlong Advocate analysis of Louisiana court cases makes clear, the 10-2 rule disproportionately disadvantages black defendants.
Pete Adams, who heads the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, has questioned whether requiring 12 jurors to agree in felony cases advances justice. “In today’s Twitter, social media society, everybody’s kind of in their little corner,” he told a Senate committee considering the bill. “More so today than ever, I think, people take their agenda into the courtroom.”
And yet, in almost every other state in the nation, including ones with vigorous traditions of law and order, citizens accept their duty to deliberate and, if possible, reach agreement among a dozen jurors around a table.
We choose not to think that Louisiana’s people are any less resourceful in finding common ground among their peers. And we would argue that in our increasingly divisive age, the struggle for consensus in a courtroom is exactly the kind of civic exercise that reminds us of our shared purpose as Americans.
That common cause, as old as this republic, is the protection of fairness and equality before the law, a clarion call Louisiana can no longer ignore.