Louisiana’s Catholic bishops came out Thursday in favor of requiring unanimous jury verdicts in all felony trials in the state.
The church’s endorsement of Amendment 2 on the Nov. 6 ballot adds a major statewide voice to a broad base of support across the political spectrum for a measure that made a surprising run through the state Legislature last spring.
If it passes, Louisiana would fall back in line with 48 other states, as well as the federal court system, in requiring unanimity in all criminal jury verdicts. The change would apply only to crimes committed on or after Jan. 1.
At present, Louisiana allows juries to convict or acquit defendants on the votes of as few as 10 out of 12 jurors.
“The unanimity of a jury does not simply ensure that the legal standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ has been met, but it also brings our legal system into much closer accord with the cardinal virtues of prudence and justice,” the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement released Thursday.
The state Republican and Democratic parties both have thrown their support behind a measure that would do away with an unusual law that was enshrined 120 years during the Jim Crow era, in a push to disenfranchise the state’s swelling rolls of black voters and potential black jurors.
Louisiana was the first of only two states to adopt split verdicts in serious felony cases, dispensing with centuries of Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. Oregon is the other, though only Louisiana defendants can be convicted of murder or receive a life prison sentence with no chance of parole on the votes of less than 12 jurors.
Lesser felonies in Louisiana are tried by six-member juries, all of whom must agree for a verdict to be valid. Verdicts in capital murder trials also must be unanimous.
Louisiana’s law allows verdicts for conviction or acquittal on the votes of as few as 10 jurors. Before a revision in 1973, just nine of 12 jurors were needed to reach a verdict.
State voters ratified that change as part of a much broader overhaul of the state’s Constitution. Next month will be the first time Louisiana voters will be asked to weigh in specifically on the split-verdict scheme.
No campaign has formed in opposition to the measure, though Attorney General Jeff Landry has come out in opposition, arguing that there is no proof that non-unanimous verdicts are any less reliable than unanimous ones.
Campaigns in favor of the amendment, on the left and the right, have started launching ads mostly targeting “chronic” voters on social media.
Turnout is expected to be low for an election featuring mostly low-wattage congressional fights and a race for secretary of state.
A year-long investigation by The Advocate, published in the spring, found that 40 percent of nearly 1,000 convictions handed down by 12-member juries over six years were reached without consensus.
The newspaper’s analysis found that black defendants were 30 percent more likely than white defendants to be convicted by split juries. The Advocate data also show that black jurors are significantly more likely than white jurors to dissent from the majority view.