Court ruling striking split-jury verdicts should mean the release of inmates convicted that way, their attorneys say

About 1,600 Louisiana inmates sent to prison by split juries

By: - July 23, 2020 7:15 am
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Using the term “Jim Crow juries” to describe the divided panels that sent an untold number of Louisianians to life imprisonment, the Promise of Justice Initiative announced Wednesday that it’s pushing for the retroactive application of an April U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared split juries in felony trials unconstitutional.

Between 1898 and 2019, Louisiana allowed defendants to be sent to prison — even life imprisonment — if two of the 12 members of a jury remained unconvinced of their guilt. The law making non-unanimous verdicts valid was one of many laws formed during the horribly oppressive Jim Crow era in the South and was drafted during a Louisiana constitutional convention organized to preserve white supremacy.

The criminal justice reform organization is spearheading a litigation campaign involving 150 lawyers that will seek to win new trials or outright freedom for inmates who were convicted under the rules the nation’s highest court has now outlawed. The group announced Wednesday that it has filed its 30th petition on behalf of a Louisiana inmate condemned to prison by jurors who didn’t reach consensus on his guilt.

“Jim Crow juries are systemic racism defined: a law written by white supremacists that continues to deprive thousands of predominantly Black Louisianians of their liberty,” Jamila Johnson, the managing attorney for PJI’s Jim Crow Juries project, said Wednesday.  “Amid a national reckoning against institutionalized racism, Jim Crow juries are a monument to white supremacy that must be torn down. “

In its next term, the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether its April ruling in Ramos v. Louisiana should apply retroactively. But the PJI’s position is that Louisiana’s prosecutors and lawmakers don’t need to wait for a ruling from the court.  The Louisiana Legislature could pass a law mandating that the ruling apply to those already imprisoned or the state’s district attorneys could decide to review the non-unanimous guilty verdicts their prosecutors won.

In addition to announcing that it had filed petitions for 30 inmates, the Promise of Justice Initiative also filed a “friend of the court” brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a Baton Rouge man serving life for aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and five counts of aggravated robbery.  Much of that brief is dedicated to the group’s argument that revisiting all the relevant cases wouldn’t overwhelm the court system.

“In reality, this Court’s ruling in favor of Petitioner would likely require reversal of approximately sixteen hundred convictions. That means, retroactive application of Ramos will increase the number of criminal cases in Louisiana by less than 2%. The majority of these cases will either be resolved with a plea agreement or dismissed. Even assuming a rate of retrials that is ten times the current trial rate, the net effect of retroactive application will be one additional jury trial per year per assistant district attorney, spread over two years.”

Speaking of the state’s district attorneys, Johnson said, “I would hope that we could be partners moving forward to fix this historic wrong together,  but I also am realistic and understand that that’s probably going to be a stretch or for them. But I would encourage them to consider what their role is. They didn’t have a choice when the law required that 10-2 and 11-1 lead to a conviction.” But they have a choice now, she said. “Help right this wrong.”

The Louisiana District Attorney’s Association decided not to oppose Amendment 2, the 2018 ballot initiative that voters approved requiring unanimous jury verdicts for felony convictions, but Loren Lampert, the executive director of the LDAA said Wednesday afternoon that the association has not taken a position on the question of Ramos v. Louisiana being applied retroactively.

Lampert said he’d heard that PJI had filed a brief with the Supreme Court but that he hadn’t yet had an opportunity to read it. However, he said that the state’s district attorneys haven’t been thinking “ideologically” but “logistically.”  

Applying the ruling retroactively, Lampert said, “means revisiting 20, 30-year-old murder cases with 20, 30-year-old evidence.”  He said the state’s district attorneys want to think of both sides of the equation and do what’s fair for the victim and the accused.

In Wednesday’s brief, PJI says its found some instances where non-unanimous juries returned a guilty verdict in 30 minutes or less.  That suggests that jurors in the majority didn’t give the dissenters time to explain why they didn’t think the defendant was guilty.  And why would they? Johnson, the managing attorney for PJI, said that in their instructions to jurors, judges would often tell them, “When you get to 10, you’re done.”

The short deliberations can indicate that there never was debate, but, Johnson said, “On the other hand, it’s just as interesting to think about the people who deliberated really long periods of time because that meant that for really long periods of time they couldn’t even get to 10-2. They were still hanging out at 9-3 and eventually someone changed their vote to get the 10-2.”

Because the law allowed 10-2 verdicts and because juries were often instructed that they needed no more than 10 votes, there are many survivors and relatives of victims for whom a 10-2 verdict represents what little justice they got, and this movement to free or retry everybody convicted by a split jury might cause them some anxiety.

 “I would never pretend to put myself in anyone’s individual spot as they’re dealing with grief  or dealing with what it is like to have felt victimized in in such a way,” Johnson said, “but we are really hoping that survivors and families of victims can have a conversation, too, about how we as Louisianans heal from this practice.”


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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.