On New Year’s Day, an old tradition met its end. Established in the racist days of the 19th century, a constitutional rule made Louisiana one of only two states that did not require a unanimous agreement of 12 jurors for felony convictions.
With the approval of the Legislature and a vote of the people in November, the Louisiana Constitution now requires a unanimous verdict, leaving only Oregon among the states with the antiquated standard.
As reporting in The Advocate demonstrated, the old rule was rooted in white supremacist politics after the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. There has never been a plausible case made for keeping the old rule, although some prosecutors had their doubts, including Attorney General Jeff Landry. Many leading prosecutors, though, backed the constitutional amendment in November.
The case for change was compelling, and the voters recognized that fact.
Unanimous verdicts were already in place for those facing the death penalty, but many long felony sentences were rendered on the old 10-2 rule.
A sentence of many years in prison ought to be difficult to obtain. That unanimity, often the product of extended deliberation, affirms the standard of guilt beyond reasonable doubt — exactly the kind of yardstick that we would want if we, or someone we love, were accused of serious wrongdoing.
It is obviously not an impossible hurdle, as 48 states operated under unanimous-verdict policies for decades.
Passage of this reform through the Legislature was a triumph for an unusual bipartisan coalition, with conservative and liberal groups joining to support the constitutional amendment in November.
All jury verdicts for felony offenses committed Tuesday and thereafter will have to be unanimous to convict, but cases working their ways through the courts for crimes committed before 2019 will be subject to the old provisions.
Reopening old cases would quite likely have sunk the legislation, originally championed by state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans. A key figure in the legislative debate and subsequent campaign for the constitutional amendment was a Republican former prosecutor, Ed Tarpley from central Louisiana.
A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate at the State Capitol before it is placed on a statewide ballot. Across the political spectrum, though, this reform drew endorsements and support. The people voted in favor of the change, two to one.
Such bipartisan efforts ought to be the model, and the strong endorsement of the jury change by the voters shows that the public appreciates that kind of leadership.