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.