Members of the Louisiana Republican Party, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, the Louisiana Family Forum, and the Innocence Project walk into a room. This is not the start of a bad joke, but rather the beginning of a Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC) meeting. People filter in carrying backpacks and briefcases, some wearing sandals and others full suits. Pre-meeting chatter spans from talk of church to Congress to the candy on the table.
The unexpected group has formed to encourage everyone in Louisiana--regardless of political leaning--to vote YES on Amendment 2 on the November 6 ballot. In today’s America, such unlikely allies uniting across party lines is a rare sight. In fact, a room where formerly incarcerated people are collaborating with former conservative prosecutors is so abnormal as to be worthy of statewide news coverage. Yet it is exactly this type of collaboration that is necessary to make true political change. And it’s happening.
To understand the importance of this motley crew, it’s important to first understand what’s bringing them together: the current existence of non-unanimous juries in Louisiana.
In this state, only 10 out of 12 jurors in all jury cases are required to agree that a person is guilty in order to sentence that person to prison. Louisiana is one of only two states in the nation that do not currently require unanimous juries in criminal cases, and the only state that does not require them in murder cases.
Unanimous juries--which the other 48 states have had for a long time--are meant to ensure that the person on trial is judged by a jury representative of their peers, and that each member of the jury has an equal voice.
This equality on the jury holds the justice system accountable to make sure that all citizens receive a fair trial.
Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law, dating back to the 1898 constitutional convention, works to silence the voice of opposition in jury cases. Rooted in racism, the law continues to disproportionately impact Black people. Non-unanimous juries have led to wrongful convictions, an over extension of government power, and a reproduction of white supremacy.
But the motley UJC crew is here to correct that. The group is a model of bipartisan grassroots organizing that is moving beyond biases in order to change the broken systems that affect Louisiana communities in profound ways. The UJC is made of people of many different races, class statuses, faiths, and political backgrounds. So, too, are Louisiana voters, so many of whom are affected by the reality of non-unanimous juries, and all of whom hold the power to demand the same basic right to a fair trial for Louisiana residents that 48 states in our nation guarantee for their citizens.
Celebrities are also joining hands with the civil rights activists, politicians, and Louisiana citizens of all kinds who are uniting to vote #yeson2 and encourage others to do the same.
“It's time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported”-- John Legend
“It's time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported,” says Grammy award winning singer/songwriter John Legend. “The 1898 constitutional convention was about denying voice to the expression of all of Louisiana's citizens. This ballot question in November is about giving Louisiana her voice back.”
Echoing Legend’s sentiments is VOTE’s own Checo Yancy, who is formerly incarcerated and was sentenced by a 10-2 jury. "The unanimous jury matters because of liberty, freedom, and confidence in the justice system," he says. "The only way to make change is to unite as Louisiana voters."
The UJC, Legend, Yancy and many more are working hard to make sure Louisiana voters know that non-unanimous juries are denying them rights that are guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
That way, come November 6, when question 2 on the ballot reads, verbatim:
“CA NO. 2 (ACT 722 - SB 243 - Unanimous Juries for Noncapital Felonies
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? (Amends Article 1, Section 17 (A)) ”, Louisianans of all backgrounds will know what to do.
This movement is stronger when all people come together, learn together, and vote together.
Sarah Gordon is VOTE's new Communications Assistant. She recently moved to New Orleans after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis. Contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.