Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre and the police chiefs in Covington and Thibodaux are among a half-dozen current and former law enforcement officials supporting a November ballot measure asking voters if they want to require unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana felony trials.
Those endorsements were trumpeted this past week by the Unanimous Jury Coalition, a group of mostly liberal advocacy groups that is campaigning statewide in favor of Constitutional Amendment 2, a referendum on an unusual 120-year-old rule born in the Jim Crow era.
Louisiana is one of two states — Oregon being the other — that allow a defendant to be convicted on the votes of as few as 10 of 12 jurors. Only Louisiana allows split verdicts in murder trials.
The amendment asks voters if they want to require unanimous verdicts to convict or acquit defendants in all felony trials in Louisiana for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 2019.
The ballot measure, approved this year by two-thirds of the Republican-dominated Legislature, marks the first time that state voters will be asked directly about the split-verdict law.
“The Founding Fathers believed that the unanimous jury decision was essential to the protection of justice. I agree with them,” Webre said in a statement released by the coalition.
Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz, who has announced he will resign for what political observers expect will be a run for St. Tammany Parish sheriff, and Thibodaux Police Chief Bryan Zeringue also threw their support behind the amendment.
"As a lifelong law enforcement officer, and after consulting with people whom I respect from the bench, the time has come to make this important change,” Lentz said in a statement.
Former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite of New Orleans as well as former Monroe police corporal Tim Hitt and ex-Baton Rouge assistant city prosecutor David Brown round out the slim list of law enforcement endorsements secured by amendment backers thus far.
Notably absent from the list are any of the state’s 42 district attorneys and, except for Webre, any of the 64 sheriffs.
However, aside from Attorney General Jeff Landry’s public opposition, the amendment has found support from other elected officials across the political spectrum. The state’s GOP and Democratic parties both have endorsed it, as have influential conservative groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum.
Ben Cohen, an attorney with the New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative and a coalition leader, said he knows of at least a few DAs who favor the amendment but are reluctant to say so publicly.
“They don’t want to go on the record. They’re worried about the conflicts between the other DAs and stepping on toes,” Cohen said.
The powerful Louisiana District Attorneys Association had opposed placing the measure on the ballot, but it changed to a neutral stance after at least a few district attorneys privately voiced misgivings about trying to block it.
A year-long investigation by The Advocate found that 40 percent of convictions by 12-member juries in Louisiana come with at least one juror unconvinced. The newspaper’s review also found that black defendants were 30 percent more likely than white ones to be convicted by split juries, and that the verdict rule serves to silence black jurors more than white ones.
The law also has a significant impact on Louisiana's notoriously high incarceration rate — now second-highest in the nation — both in the number of long-serving inmates convicted by split juries and in the law's weighty influence on plea deals, the newspaper found.