There’s not much bipartisan agreement these days in Baton Rouge, but one bill in the 2018 regular legislative session drew significant support from Democrats as well as Republicans: the push to abolish Louisiana’s shameful non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials.
Only two states — Louisiana and Oregon — allow juries to convict with less-than-unanimous jury votes in felony trials, but Oregon requires a unanimous verdict for murder convictions. In our state, a jury can find a defendant guilty of murder by a 10-2 vote. The Louisiana rule dates from the Jim Crow era. In 1898, it was put into the state constitution after the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave black citizens equal protection rights, which included serving on juries in criminal trials. The purpose of the 10-vote rule was made clear by its proponents: It was to dilute the potential impact of black jurors.
Earlier this year, The New Orleans Advocate (Gambit’s news partner) published a multi-part series exploring the history of non-unanimous jury verdicts and examined some real-life cases that might have turned out differently if all jury members had to agree before a conviction. State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, introduced legislation to put the issue to a plebiscite, and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for the proposed constitutional amendment.
A referendum to do away with a Jim Crow-era law that allows juries in Louisiana to convict suspects in felony trials without a unanimous vote …
Now the matter will be on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot — a midterm election that is enormously consequential in other states but offers little to motivate Louisiana voters. We hope voters turn out in large numbers to support this long overdue change. A wide, diverse and disparate collection of groups support it, from the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana to the Louisiana Family Forum, from Voice of the Experienced (formerly Voice of the Ex-Offender) to the Louisiana Republican Party.
One person leading the charge is Ed Tarpley, a Republican and the former district attorney of Grant Parish. Tarpley began touring the state this week speaking out about Constitutional Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that would make the change.
There is little organized opposition to doing away with non-unanimous jury verdicts, although some advance the argument that a “rogue juror” or two could have undue influence in what otherwise would be a 10-2 or 11-1 vote. Someone who thinks the entire system is unjust, for instance, could derail an otherwise guilty verdict. But as state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, puts it: “Is 10 out of 12 good enough for your children? Is 10 out of 12 good enough for your wife? Is 10 out of 12 good enough for your neighbor?”
Still, the issue of unanimous jury verdicts needs a push, particularly in a state where lawmakers — and many voters — hate to appear “soft on crime.” Unfortunately, it’s the innocent, not the guilty, who suffer most under our current system. According to the Unanimous Jury Coalition, a nonprofit that supports the constitutional change, almost half of exonerated Louisianans in recent years were convicted by non-unanimous juries.
An aggressive campaign is ramping up to educate Louisiana voters about a proposed constitutional amendment that will be decided this fall — po…
You’ll hear more about Constitutional Amendment 2 as Election Day approaches. It’s a major step to making Louisiana a more just society. We support it and urge you to do so as well.