Republicans block ‘Jim Crow jury’ reform in Louisiana House committee

Bill would have given hope to people in prison after split-jury verdicts

Republicans block 'Jim Crow jury' reform
In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

Lawmakers on the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee Thursday voted against a so-called “Jim Crow jury” reform bill that would give a shot at freedom to about 1,500 people who remain in Louisiana prisons despite jurors disagreeing on their guilt.

In 2018, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment that put an end to split-jury verdicts and requires the consensus of all 12 jurors to convict a felony defendant. Before then, a person in Louisiana could be convicted of a felony and even sentenced to life imprisonment with only 10 jurors voting guilty.

House Bill 346, sponsored by Rep. Randal Gaines (D-LaPlace), would effectively make that 2018 vote retroactive. It would not release anyone from prison. Rather, it would only give people convicted by what critics call “Jim Crow juries” a new opportunity to apply for post-conviction relief. Prosecutors would have to consider those applications and determine whether to retry the person or offer a plea deal. The committee, in a 5–7 party-line vote with Republicans voting against and Democrats voting in favor, kept the bill from advancing.

“We have an opportunity to do the right thing,” Gaines told the committee. The constitutional amendment voters approved went into effect Jan. 1, 2019, and Gaines said, “Justice should be applied universally to those convicted prior to Jan. 1, 2019…as it applies now to those who are going to trial after that. Anything different from that,” he said, “will result in an inconsistent … (and) illogical application of the law and certainly an unjust one.”

Gaines’ legislation is an effort to do what the U.S. Supreme Court refused to do in its May 17 Edwards v. Vannoy ruling when it decided that its 2020 ruling finding non-unanimous juries unconstitutional is not retroactive. 

In that  Ramos v. Louisiana decision, the Supreme Court outlined how state laws establishing non-unanimous juries in Louisiana and Oregon, “originated in white supremacism and continued in our own time to have racially discriminatory effects.” 

In presenting his bill to the committee Thursday, Gaines repeated some of the same historical research the Supreme Court used to support its ruling. Louisiana required unanimous jury convictions until the late 19th Century when plantation owners sought a replacement for the slave labor they no longer had. 

“This was to be done through the convict-leasing system that existed at that time,” Gaines said.

Among many testifying in support of the legislation was Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, which represents about two-thirds (1,049) of the men and women still in custody after split-jury verdicts — of whom 80% are Black, she said.

The high percentage of Black clients shows that Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s “explanation in the Ramos decision — that this law works exactly as it was intended to — is very true for our clients,” Johnson said.

“We have real concerns about the accuracy of these convictions,” she said.

Johnson said even the conservative justices wrote about how racist and unjust the law allowing split-jury verdicts was, but the court ultimately determined that they could not force a state to retry cases and that the states — not the federal government — are responsible for solving the problem.

The Jim Crow Juries Project has taken the issue to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but Johnson urged lawmakers to take advantage of the opportunity to solve the problem by passing Gaines’ bill.

“Each of you can do the right thing now,” she said. 

A second remedy offered through the bill would offer parole eligibility for longtime prisoners who have performed well in custody. Those people would be giving up their right to a new trial in exchange for release determined by a trained group of professionals at the parole board, Johnson said.

The committee heard testimony from numerous proponents of the bill, including some who were wrongfully convicted by split juries and later exonerated. In addition to those who testified, there were 51 green cards in support of the legislation. 

The only opposition came from Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, and Bo Duhé, district attorney for Louisiana’s 16th Judicial District in New Iberia, who signaled their opposition with red cards but did not testify.

Rep. Nicholas Muscarello (R-Hammond) objected to Gaines’ motion to advance the bill, forcing it to a roll call vote. Voting against were Republicans Kathy Edmonston (Gonzales), Mike Johnson (Pineville), Joseph Orgeron (Larose), Bob Owen (Slidell), Thomas Pressly (Shreveport), Alan Seabaugh (Shreveport), and Muscarello. 

Voting in favor were Democrats Randal Gaines (LaPlace), Jason Hughes (New Orleans), Frederick Jones (Bastrop), Edmond Jordan (Baton Rouge), and Mandie Landry (New Orleans).

As lawmakers voted the bill down, a person sitting in the audience shouted, “Shame on y’all.”

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