Kiana Calloway waited as guards shouted numbers at him for nearly 90 days in Jefferson Parish Correctional Center before he learned of his charges. He was only 16 years old, and he had recently discovered his passion for basketball and football. Not long after he started getting into his athletic groove, he found himself in a jail cell.
After three months of sitting in jail, confused and afraid, he visited court for the first time. A magistrate judge explained that he had been arrested on two counts of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and feticide. Calloway, innocent of these accusations, found himself even more distressed. Despite his innocence, Calloway was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder at age 17. He received two life sentences to be served consecutively. Four years later, his case was retried, this time on two counts of second-degree murder. In the retrial, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 34 years in prison.
“Okay, I’ll be home soon,” Calloway said to himself when he woke up every morning at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In 2011, he was finally released on parole.
Calloway was asked to place his faith in a 'fair' system and then witnessed a jury made up of people who do not fit a reasonable definition of 'peers' deliver an uncertain verdict that ripped him away from his family and community.
A series of injustices facilitated Kiana’s wrongful conviction, but a very prominent one is the non-unanimous jury verdict that decided his fate. In each trial, Calloway’s juries were made up of eleven white jurors and one Black juror—a common makeup for juries nationwide. In each trial, the verdicts that sent him to prison were non-unanimous, meaning that all jurors had not come to an agreement about the verdict of “guilty.”
The jury deciding on the first-degree murder charges reached an 11 to 1 verdict. One juror did not believe that he was guilty. The jury in the second trial reached a 10 to 2 verdict. Two jurors were not convinced that Calloway had committed the crime with which he was charged.
Because Louisiana is the only state where people accused of murder can be convicted on a non-unanimous jury, it didn’t matter that one, and then two, jurors had disagreed with the others. In this state, around 40 percent of people are convicted on a non-unanimous jury, and a 10 to 2 or 11 to 1 verdict always means that a defendant is found guilty.
At the time of his conviction, Calloway was just a kid. He didn’t know what to expect, and he didn’t know what his rights were. He trusted his lawyer to serve as his advocate. He believed that the process would be fair, and a fair outcome meant exoneration. It was jarring, years later, to comprehend the extent to which the law did not protect him. He was asked to place his faith in a “fair” system and then witnessed a jury made up of people who do not fit a reasonable definition of “peers” deliver an uncertain verdict that ripped him away from his family and community.
We, the people of the United States, have proclaimed that we are dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” The discriminatory results of non-unanimous jury decisions, which disproportionately affect people of color, do not establish liberty and justice for all.
We, the people of the United States, have proclaimed that we are dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” The discriminatory results of non-unanimous jury decisions, which disproportionately affect people of color, do not establish liberty and justice for all. If we intend to uphold values of liberty and justice, it is our duty as citizens to right the wrong of the Louisiana State Constitution and do away with the non-unanimous jury law.
Now that he is home, Kiana, VOTE’s Housing Justice Campaign Organizer, is driven to fight discrimination and elevate the oppressed. “[Mass incarceration] is another form of slavery,” he says. “The system definitely needs to be reformed, restructured. It needs to work for everybody, all people…Everybody needs to get out to the polls and [change the non-unanimous jury law].”
[Mass incarceration] is another form of slavery. The system definitely needs to be reformed, restructured. It needs to work for everybody, all people.
Imagine that it’s November 6, 2018. It’s Election Day. Maybe you haven’t voted since 2016, or maybe you have never voted before in your life. Maybe you don’t read the news. Maybe you don’t believe that a vote during midterm elections matters. Maybe you attended every community meeting in your neighborhood, you design posters and show up to every political rally in Louisiana, and you do extensive research on every candidate on the ballot.
Regardless of what you’ve done up to now, you’re on a mission today, because you have the opportunity to reduce the number of people in Louisiana who will go to prison. You’re on your way to work, or to drop your kid off at daycare, or home from a long shift, and you make a stop at your polling place. A poll worker greets you, smiles, and checks you in. You glance at the woman to your left as she digs through her purse to pull out her identification card, and you are reminded that she is a part of your community, even though you don’t know her name.
They hand you a ballot and you make your way to a private corner to fill it out. You’re partaking in one of the few responsibilities assigned to you as a citizen, just like being a juror on a jury. You fill in the bubbles of the candidates you’ve selected, and then you arrive at the Unanimous Juries ballot measure. You vote “Yes.” You mean, “Yes, this racist law has been on the books for far too long, and I have the power to change it.” You mean, “Yes, I care about creating a more just Louisiana.” The process isn’t loud or flashy, and you won’t know the results right away. But once you’re done, the poll worker hands you a sticker that says “I voted,” and you wear it with pride for the rest of the day.
Lizzie Shackney is an intern at VOTE this summer. She spent the last year as an AmeriCorps member in Alabama and will soon move to Texas to work on Beto O'Rourke's Senate campaign.
Though we're sad to see Curtis go, we're proud of him and excited for the opportunities he'll have at his new job with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Read more in the interview below.
Curtis Davis: After working with VOTE for the past two years, I have now taken a job at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I am a certified paralegal, so I have decided to put my talents to work by helping to prepare lawsuits for the firm.
VOTE: What is your new position? What responsibilities will you have?
CD: My title is Outreach Paralegal, Criminal Justice Reform. I’m working with the team that does a lot of policy work for organizations like VOTE who are involved in criminal justice reform advocacy. I am specifically responsible for investigating cases, interviewing witnesses, along with researching and coordinating with grassroots organizations.
VOTE: What are you looking forward to?
CD: I am specifically looking forward to the passing of the referendum on unanimous juries in Louisiana coming up on November 6th.
VOTE: What have you learned through your work at VOTE? How will that help you in your next job?
CD: Working as the Chapter Leader of VOTE Shreveport, I was able to learn about changing policies, and I gained experience that I could have not received anywhere else. I am forever grateful to Norris Henderson for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate my value and learn on the job.
VOTE: How will your work with SPLC impact the criminal justice system?
CD: SPLC has done tremendous work over the past several years, especially in regard to penal reform. However, I believe the best is yet to come!
By Checo Yancy and Will Harrell, J.D., LL.M.
The 2018 session was complicated and hectic. VOTE made truly historic gains by passing laws that positively impact formerly and currently incarcerated folks. We battled a very powerful law enforcement community that was able to block some best practice reforms that would have reduced prison and jail populations.
VOTE was at the capitol every day actively supporting 51 and opposing 36 of the nearly 120 criminal justice bills. We were also there to push for and fight against amendments to bills. This summary focuses on the critical pieces of legislation and takeaways from the session, as well as future opportunities to work together.
Key 2018 Legislative Developments
Unanimous Jury: On November 6, 2018 voters will go to the polls to amend the Louisiana Constitution to require unanimous jury decisions in felony cases. The previous law allowed for a 10-2 verdict to convict. This amendment will be a game changer for folks being prosecuted. Please get your family and friends registered to vote so that we can change the LA Constitution!
Right to Vote: LA Act 636 gives the right to vote back to people who have been on parole or probation for 5 years. If, however, in that 5-year window a person’s parole or probation is revoked and they are incarcerated, the 5 year clock will start all over again upon release. The law goes into effect on March 1, 2019. We need your help getting the word out!
Post-Adjudication Veterans Court Mentorship Program: The Veterans Association of Angola drafted a first-of-its-kind bill for VOTE to take to the legislature. It creates the veterans’ mentorship program. Veterans convicted and sentenced to 20 years or more may serve as mentors in the Veterans Court programs once they have served 10 years on their sentence and meet other requirements. If they mentor for 5 years, they will receive a favorable clemency recommendation and become eligible for parole.
We must build a statewide movement to amend the LA Constitution and demand that conviction of any felony only be decided by a unanimous jury of 12 peers.
Prosecutorial Accountability and Transparency: VOTE sought to create a statewide Commission on Prosecutorial Accountability to provide real oversight and accountability for prosecutorial misconduct though many detailed reporting measures. Because nearly every District Attorney in the state travelled to the Capitol to oppose the bills, we were only able to pass a House resolution to study the need for prosecutorial oversight.
2017 Justice Reinvestment Package: VOTE and the Louisianans for Prison Alternatives coalition (LPA) unsuccessfully tried to expand the impact of the historic 2017 criminal justice reform laws. We had to spend a significant amount of time preventing “roll backs” to the sentencing reform laws. We fought hard and stood firm to prevent much of that from happening. Judges and prosecutors were successful in changing the law that capped probation at 3 years to give judges the ability to add 2 more years to an individual’s probationary period.
Due Process Protection: Our friends at the Innocence Project were able to pass what is being hailed as a model eyewitness identification reform.
Juvenile Justice: Two significant juvenile justice bills passed. Together they expand the number of charges for which a juvenile can request a sentence modification, give broader discretion to judges to sentence juveniles prosecuted as adults and shorten lengths of stay in detention.
Medical Furlough: We eliminated the prohibition against medical furlough to people with convictions for second degree murder but lost the fight on prohibiting a medical furlough for anyone convicted of first degree murder.
We need people committed to working for common goals inside and outside.
NO SURRENDER, NO RETREAT!
Mr. Morrison, a 67-year-old Black man, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison at age 17. After serving 40 years, he is eligible for parole.
Five other VOTE interns and I learn this as we sit in a small room in a Baton Rouge courthouse. There are four rows of chairs on either side of the room, and a monitor hanging on the wall in the middle of them. On the other side of the monitor sits Mr. Morrison, who’s in another small room at Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. The Warden and another woman sit to his left, and a few people sit behind him. The quality of the monitor isn’t perfect, so I can’t quite see Morrison’s facial expression, but I imagine it is solemn.
Though there are five people sitting in front of us, only two are allowed to speak. One man, Morrison’s mentee from Angola, gives a heartfelt and compelling speech about his friend. He emphasizes how influential Morrison was in helping him to get to the successful place he is now—working as a law clerk with a law degree. There’s a job waiting for Morrison at the firm if he gets out.
“I don’t have room for error in my life anymore,” says Morrison, echoing the sentiments of his mentee.
Ultimately, though, he is denied parole because of a homemade weapon that was found in his cell last February. He claims it wasn’t his, but that doesn’t matter to the parole board, only one of whom votes in favor of his release. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Don’t cry right now, I tell myself.
Later, one of the other interns told me that she felt it wasn’t her place to cry, naming my own feelings in that moment. So I don’t allow myself to cry, despite listening to a Southern white man tell a 67-year-old Black man that he wishes him luck as he denies him his freedom.
Why is the solution for a teenager who commits a crime to lock them up for their entire life? I ask myself as I watch Mr. Brent, another Black man in his 60s, enter the room on the monitor.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, one of the other interns takes my hand. We all look at each other with rage and sadness.
Like Morrison, Brent has also served a little over 40 years in prison. Unlike Morrison, however, Brent has family members sitting in the same room as us or with him at Angola. They are all wearing shirts with Brent’s face on it. There is a tonal shift as one of the board members, the same older white Southern man who wished Morrison good luck, begins cracking jokes. He was quite strict during Morrison’s case, but now he cautions Brent’s daughter to not mess up her speech, implying that her father’s parole is already guaranteed. He mixes up important numbers, like the year Brent was convicted and his risk assessment score. He jokes about how bad his math is.
“You already know how I’m going to vote,” he says.
The room simultaneously fills with nervous laughter and a sense of gravity. Although it is a relief to hear the board member make such a claim, his jokes are making light of Brent’s fate.
Brent is granted parole, and his family bursts into tears and a series of “amen.” There is not a dry eye in the room, including my own and those of the other interns.
Though Morrison was denied parole, it seems clear to me that both he and Brent deserve to be free. I cannot say the same for the third case, Mr. Parent.
Parent, a 56-year-old white man, has multiple convictions for various counts including intimidating a witness, simple burglary and extortion, among others. The Warden expresses how well he’s done in various programs that he has been a part of, and Parent himself expresses remorse, apologizing to the victims of his crime. He claims he has found God, that he has changed due to his new devotion to Christianity. In front of me, five white men nod along with his words. One of these men is Senator Danny Martiny (R - District 10), who speaks on Parent’s behalf. Where was the senator to speak on Morrison or Brent’s behalf? Parent clearly had powerful connections that protected him and provided him with an unfair advantage. This is reinforced when the prosecutor mentions Parent’s multiple D.U.I.’s that he never received any penalty for.
I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone.
Unlike the other two hearings, Parent’s victim sits across from us with two lawyers and family members. Ms. Blanco, the mother of the victim, speaks first. With anger in her voice, she explains the fear that she and her daughter felt when Parent called them with death threats. She claims that Parent’s religiosity means nothing, that he is still a danger to her and her daughter.
Ms. Lambert, Parent’s victim, eventually approaches the podium. Her voice shakes as she tells the board that if Parent were to get out, she and her son would not be safe. She points to the group of white men sitting in front of me and says that they are the same people who have always protected him. Senator Martiny looks up from his phone to shake his head and whisper something to a woman sitting next to him. I could feel the fear in her testimony, and the contrast between testimonies is unsettling.
Despite Parent’s display of power and white privilege, his parole is denied. Ms. Lambert and Ms. Blanco, along with their lawyers, exit the room almost immediately. The group of Parent’s supporters stay behind. I learn later they are required to wait a certain period of time to allow for the victims to leave. I watch as they approach the board members and shake their hands familiarly, smiling and making jokes with one another. The whole scene leaves me confused. Although I don’t believe anybody should stay incarcerated, and I wish there was a better option for Parent, the victims’ testimonies also had me questioning the idea of Parent’s release.
After listening to all three cases I was most bothered by the idea that both Morrison and Parent are considered dangers to society, yet the contrast between them could not be more stark. It was was very clear to me that if Morrison was released he would peacefully live the rest of his life. At almost 70 years old he seemed so far removed from his conviction, and I could tell that he was simply exhausted. I wondered what it would have taken to convince the parole board of the thoughts that I was having. Was it really just his violation and subsequent lockdown that made them consider him a danger and deny his parole? Was it the color of his skin? In this moment I remember that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. I remember that I am fed narratives of white supremacy and of Black incarceration daily. I see firsthand what I had learned long before: that the cyclical nature of this system is so pervasive and internalized in everyone. Suddenly, I’m once again confused and enraged.
Each unanswered question and frustrating feeling motivates me to use my voice as a white ally to spread awareness and speak out against this system. Knowledge is power, and although at times I felt uncomfortable during the hearings, I am grateful for the opportunity to now pass on what I learned.
Stella Frank interned with VOTE this summer. She is a student at Bard College.