The leaders of the Catholic Church in Louisiana, one of the most socially conservative institutions in public life, are urging voters to change state law concerning how juries decide the fate of those accused of serious crimes.
In backing Amendment 2 on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot, the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops has demonstrated that the reform at the heart of this amendment to the state constitution isn’t radical or revolutionary. The proposed change is simply a way to help make the courts fair for everyone, an ideal that any freedom-loving American should embrace.
All but two states in America require the unanimous agreement of 12 jury members to convict a person of a serious crime. Louisiana is an outlier, requiring that just 10 of 12 jurors agree to convict a defendant of a felony, which could mean a lifetime behind bars. Oregon is the only other state that allows nonunanimous juries for felonies, but not even Oregon permits such split verdicts for murder or any crime involving a life sentence.
Louisiana’s unusual departure from basic standards of jurisprudence evolved after the Civil War, when white leaders feared that newly emancipated African Americans might upset the status quo. Allowing defendants to the convicted by divided juries helped assure that the will of the white majority would prevail.
A yearlong investigation of 10-2 jury convictions by The Advocate found that even today, this vestige of the Jim Crow South still disproportionately disadvantages black defendants, who represent two-thirds of Louisiana’s prison population.
But that sad fact is far from the only reason to do away with the 10-2 rule. Ultimately, anyone accused of a felony, regardless of color, class or creed, should get the same standard of justice afforded the overwhelming majority of other Americans.
Louisiana’s Catholic bishops said as much in their joint statement backing Amendment 2, arguing that the state must “bring its practice in line with the 48 states that require unanimous jury verdicts for all felony convictions.”
Since America’s system of justice is grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition, the bishops’ backing of unanimous juries speaks to basic principles of right and wrong that resonate through the ages. That’s why Amendment 2 has drawn support across Louisiana’s political spectrum, including endorsements from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
In Louisiana, where more than a fourth of residents are Catholic, the church’s support of Amendment 2 is important.
But the basic issue here should resonate with those of all faiths — or no particular religious faith at all. If any of us were accused of a serious crime, would we want 12 jurors to agree on our fate, or just 10?
Voters should take the bishops’ lead and approve Amendment 2.