Louisiana's top law enforcement official has come out against the proposal to require juries in Louisiana to reach unanimous verdicts in order to convict suspects in felony cases, making him one of the few prominent politicians to oppose it so far.
The state's voters will decide the issue Nov. 6.
The push to allow Louisiana voters to decide whether to require unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases cleared a final procedural hurdle in t…
The movement to end split-jury verdicts in Louisiana, one of only two states that allow them, began as a long-shot cause embraced by a small group of liberal activists and lawmakers.
But it gained surprising steam among conservatives during this year’s legislative session and wound up passing both chambers of the Republican-dominated Legislature by the required two-thirds margin.
Since then, the push for jury unanimity has seemed to grow in strength, with the state Republican Party signing on to endorse it, and supporters hosting fundraisers and voter-outreach efforts to get the constitutional amendment passed on Nov. 6.
Some powerful conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity and the Louisiana Family Forum, have been on board for months.
But Attorney General Jeff Landry prefers the status quo.
Landry declined to be interviewed by The Advocate on the topic, instead directing questions to his chief deputy, Wilbur “Bill” Stiles III, and a political strategist, Brent Littlefield.
It’s not clear whether Landry — who said last week that he is considering challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, in next year’s elections — plans to put any effort into fighting the ballot measure. Edwards supports changing the law.
For the last 120 years, Louisiana has had an unusual and long-standing allowance for split jury verdicts in felony cases.
“In terms of anything (Landry) might or might not do, in terms of advocacy, I really don’t have any comment,” Littlefield said. “We’ll have to see how things unfold.”
Oregon is the only other state to allow juries to convict people of felonies when just 10 out of 12 jurors agree. Louisiana is the only state to allow such split verdicts in murder cases.
So far, the November ballot initiative has drawn little in the way of organized opposition. The state’s association of district attorneys, which originally opposed the change, later decided to stay neutral as a group — though some individual DAs have spoken out against the proposed amendment.
If he chose to, Landry could give the defenders of the status quo a prominent champion, something their cause has so far lacked.
Asked why Landry doesn’t want to change the law, Stiles said he believes “the non-unanimous jury law has a positive effect on the criminal justice system in Louisiana. We believe it makes for quicker and easier administration of the system.”
An aggressive campaign is ramping up to educate Louisiana voters about a proposed constitutional amendment that will be decided this fall — po…
The law allowing for 10-2 verdicts affects Landry’s office directly because assistant attorneys general are responsible for prosecuting certain cases in state courts. While the law lowers the bar for acquittal as well as conviction, most lawyers see it as an advantage for the state because juries tend to convict far more often than they acquit.
Among other advantages, Stiles said he believes picking juries is more efficient under Louisiana’s system because lawyers on both sides don’t have to worry about the possibility that one stubborn juror might keep a trial from ending in a verdict.
“I think it makes for a more relaxed, less intense voir dire,” Stiles said, referring to the questioning of potential jurors. “You don’t have to worry that you might miss that one guy … and that you can still have a successful prosecution.”
He added: “We live in an era where some people think everything a cop does is wrong. Anecdotally, I’ve had cases where people are on video committing a crime, and a juror says, ‘I can’t convict this person.’ Our system prevents someone from attempting to sway a jury by holding out.”
Stiles said the attorney general is not troubled by reporting done by The Advocate showing that the 10-2 verdict law, which was born in racial animus, continues to have a disproportionate impact on black defendants.
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The newspaper analyzed roughly 1,000 jury trials that took place in nine of the state’s busiest courthouses and found that the juries were substantially whiter than the communities they were drawn from, and that black jurors were far more likely to vote against convictions than white jurors.
Stiles said he believed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky prevents racially biased jury selection. Since that ruling, lawyers for both sides must be ready to provide “race-neutral” reasons for eliminating certain jurors from the pool.
“I don’t think there’s a problem with the system,” he said.
Stiles said the attorney general is comfortable taking a position counter to that of the state Republican Party and other conservative groups, noting that a similar slate of groups backed a package of criminal justice reforms in 2017. Landry opposed those reforms then and still does, Stiles said.
Landry, of course, isn’t alone among state Republicans in his opposition to the constitutional amendment. Between the House and the Senate, a total of 25 lawmakers — all but three of them Republicans, and most representing rural areas — voted against putting the measure on the ballot this fall.
“Everybody can’t be agreeable on every line item on the party’s platform,” Stiles said. “Obviously, the party has voted to condone this, or to endorse this, just like a lot of (party leaders) support the criminal justice reforms.
“But we’re looking at this from a practical standpoint, and practically speaking, we think this will be detrimental. We feel this is not in the interest of the system.”
Ed Tarpley, a former district attorney for Grant Parish and a conservative Republican who has emerged as a leader in the movement to change Louisiana's law, said he thinks the attorney general should reconsider his position.
"The efficiency argument is just not valid," Tarpley said. "No one is making that argument in the other 48 states that require unanimous juries. The purpose of the jury is to carefully deliberate and consider the evidence used at trial. We need careful deliberations by the jury, not a quick rush to judgment.
"A unanimous jury ensures that all objections by dissenting jurors must be considered. What if the lone juror is right and the majority is wrong? Under the current system, once 10 jurors vote guilty, it doesn’t matter what the objections of the dissenting jurors were. The trial is over. This is not a just or fair system."
As part of The Advocate's investigation into Louisiana's history and nonunanimous jury verdicts, this timeline details the key events that hav…