Thanks to the help of many VOTE members and allies, Senate Bill 243, which requires unanimous verdicts in felony cases, passed through the Louisiana Legislature this past session. Half the battle has been won, but now the decision to repeal this Jim Crow-era law is in the hands of Louisiana voters.
On November 6, 2018, the election ballot will ask people, “Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all noncapital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019?” And we need them to vote YES.
Louisiana is one of two states that allow non-unanimous verdicts in jury trials and is the only state to allow non-unanimous verdicts (requiring only 10 out of 12 votes) for murder cases and crimes carrying sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law was put in place in 1880 as an effort to minimize the influence Black jurors could have in criminal trials. The silencing that results from this non-unanimous jury system has resulted in over-incarceration, reduced deliberation and has dramatically increased wrongful convictions. It has also created rightful community distrust of the justice system, which directly undermines why the jury system exists in the first place. In theory, juries bring the voices of the community to the table and allow people to feel confident about an ethical justice system. A non-unanimous jury system is antithetical to this.
The legislative win was due in large part to the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (LACDL) and the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), specifically Ben Cohen and Calvin Duncan. People like Duncan, whose expertise developed while he was in prison, have been essential to the efforts to litigate, legislate and educate Louisiana on this issue.
The constitutional amendment has many additional supporters. One, the ACLU of Louisiana, calls the current law “archaic and racist.” The Black Caucus of Louisiana has co-sponsored it. Representative Sherman Mack, who admits to supporting legislation on behalf of prosecutors, supports the amendment, expressing that it’s time for Louisiana , “to do the right thing” and join the rest of the United States. Representative Ted James (D - East Baton Rouge) stated that this amendment will give “the people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong.” Governor Edwards also recently expressed his support and promised to encourage Louisiana to vote in favor of the amendment this fall. Even the Louisiana GOP has endorsed the amendment, supporting this change.
The people of Louisiana have the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong -- Rep. Ted James
Despite much bipartisan support, the amendment also has opponents. Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier is not in favor. During the legislative session he said “it is what it is,” in response to the fact that this law is a remnant of slavery. His quote can now be found on billboards throughout the Lake Charles area.
While DeRosier is one of numerous district attorneys throughout the state that tried to put an end to the bill, he Louisiana District Attorneys Association ultimately went from an oppositional to neutral position prior to its passage. Senator J.P. Morrell, who sponsored Senate Bill 243, believes that the likelihood of the amendment passing in November depends on the “continuation of the coalition that backed the change during the session” to educate voters and remain united. “Very seldom do we have something of this magnitude, this historic, that has enjoyed such bipartisan support,” he said during the session.
This ballot initiative is an opportunity to dramatically advance criminal justice reform in Louisiana. Combined with a relaxation on felon disenfranchisement (effective March 1st, 2019), the non-unanimous jury issue can help alter the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the South and nationwide. Yet this win won’t be possible simply with the passage of time. The time to organize, educate, and mobilize an ever-growing group of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system is now.
We must strengthen our collective voice claiming our rightful space in society, and craft a criminal justice system that actually creates public safety and healthy communities.
As November quickly approaches, it is essential that we’re hitting the ground running, which means tireless door knocking, canvassing, and spreading the word about this ballot initiative. Get involved by: 1. Registering to vote and 2. Volunteering to help us pass the unanimous jury law!