Fairness demands new trials for those convicted by split juries, but fairness won’t come without pain

‘Do I have to relive this and deal with my emotions?’ mother of murder victim asks

Marguerite La Joy Washington, 18, was murdered in October 2012. Two men were convicted of killing her, but neither jury verdict was unanimous. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about whether a recent ruling banning split-jury verdicts should apply retroactively. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Washington)

Margaret Washington said Wednesday evening that she wishes she could have listened in as an Orleans Parish jury in 2015 decided the fate of the two men accused in the murder of her daughter, a Dillard University freshman who had just turned 18. “The evidence proves they did it,” Washington said of Marguerite La Joy Washington’s October 2012 shooting death at the hands of gunmen aiming for her boyfriend.

So why did one of the 12 jurors not vote to convict one of the defendants, and why did two not vote to convict the other?

Shortly after the trial for Jeffrey Washington (no relation) and Myron Jackson, Washington shrugged and dismissed the jurors who didn’t vote to convict them as lacking good sense. Their refusal to pronounce the defendants guilty hadn’t mattered in a state where 10-2 verdicts were valid, and the mother could finally do something other than worry about her princess’s murder going unpunished.

But things have changed. An attorney for a Baton Rouge man serving life for aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and five counts of aggravated robbery asked the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to make retroactive its April opinion declaring split-jury verdicts unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana almost 18 months after Louisianians overwhelmingly supported an amendment requiring unanimous verdicts in jury trials. That ruling put an end to split verdicts in Oregon and Puerto Rico, but does it mean anything to Louisiana?

Not if people convicted by split juries don’t get new trials. If the Supreme Court outlawed something Louisiana had already stopped doing and decides it only applies to cases going forward, then, for Louisiana at least, the ruling banning split-jury verdicts is empty and symbolic.

During Wednesday’s oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan said she understands the Ramos decision to mean a unanimous verdict is “basic in the same way that a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard is basic” and that it says “if you haven’t been convicted by a unanimous jury, you really haven’t been convicted at all. And so how could it be that a rule like that does not have retroactive effect?”

“Will I have to get up there again?” Washington asked, referring to her time in the witness box. “I have been working toward resolution and dealing with the loss of my child. Do I have to open up that bag of worms again, to relive this and deal with my emotions?”

Elizabeth Murrill, Louisiana’s solicitor general, told the justices that “declaring the Ramos rule retroactive unsettles thousands of cases that involve terrible crimes.”  She said it would be ”particularly unfair to the victims of these crimes.”

Murrill spoke with more certainty than Washington did. She wants the men convicted in her daughter’s death to stay convicted, but “at the same time, I feel bad for those persons who may not have been guilty of what they have been accused of, and yet they still have to serve time because of that split (verdict).

“And then the other side is: How many of those juries were made up of persons that were like the defendant? You know, it sometimes it boils down to race and people (saying) ‘Well, yeah, just send them all up the river.’”

The Promise of Justice Institute, one of the organizations pushing for new trials for those convicted by split juries, uses the phrase “Jim Crow juries” to describe Louisiana’s old jury law. It was an idea hatched by the White supremacists who violently reclaimed power after Reconstruction’s brief period of integrated government.

Murrill argued that what racist lawmakers did during the Jim Crow era is irrelevant because Louisiana allowed split-jury verdicts in the constitution it created in 1974 and relied on U.S. Supreme Court rulings when it did. But André Bélanger, arguing for Thedrick Edwards, said there’s no getting around “the expressly racist origin of non-unanimous juries.” He added: “Since Ramos, members of this court have recognized that the original motivation for the laws mattered, notwithstanding any subsequent re-ratification.”

Bélanger said the number of cases that would be resurrected “is probably closer to a thousand,” not the thousands Murrill claimed, an amount he said that wouldn’t overwhelm the courts.

“In the end,” Bélanger said, “the state has no legitimate interest in avoiding retroactivity, but for its desire to let Mr. Edwards languish in Angola for the rest of his life.”

Washington has never wanted the men accused of murdering her daughter to die at Angola — or even to spend most of their lives there. She asked prosecutors to offer a plea deal to the defendants, but they rolled the dice with the jury. 

“If they pleaded guilty, and the sentence was reduced? I would have no problem with that,” she said Wednesday. “Give me 20 years, and then go on your way.”

It didn’t occur to me until after we’d hung up that the reduced sentences Washington says she’d prefer aren’t possible unless the men get new trials. Of course, they could again refuse to plead guilty and go to trial, and what if a second jury splits under these new rules? “I worry about that,” she said.