Louisiana Supreme Court won’t allow new trials for ‘Jim Crow’ split-jury verdicts
(Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled two years ago that felony convictions could no longer be secured with a non-unanimous jury in Louisiana and Oregon, the last two states that had such a threshold. But Louisiana’s highest court handed down an opinion Friday that said the ruling doesn’t apply retroactively, meaning some 1,500 felons currently in prison on split-jury verdicts won’t get a new day in court.
Split-jury convictions are a relic of the Jim Crow era, the post-Civil War period when Southern states and localities adopted laws that limited the voice and freedom of Black citizens. By allowing 10-2 or 11-1 verdicts in felony criminal cases, a court could silence the dissenting voices of Black jurors.
Louisiana actually passed a state constitutional amendment in 2018 that did away with split juries, but lawmakers only succeeded in getting the proposal on the ballot because they agreed not to make it apply to crimes committed before its effective date in 2019.
The issue of applying the new standard retroactively emerged again the following year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that non-unanimous juries are unconstitutional. Later in 2020, justices decided not to apply their decision to older split decisions.
In 2021, the Louisiana Legislature considered opening the doors to allow new trials for split-jury convictions, but Republican lawmakers killed the proposal.
The Louisiana Supreme Court revisited the matter this year in the case of Reginald Riddick, who was convicted of a Plaquemines Parish murder in 1997 with a 10-2 verdict. Riddick is serving a life sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
Justice Scott Chrichton wrote the majority opinion that had the backing of four of his colleagues.
“We find it notable that unlike other new constitutional criminal rules announced by the Supreme Court, Louisiana voters and the state legislature had already remedied the wrong before the Supreme Court ruled in Ramos in April 2020,” Chrichton wrote in his opinion. “They did so, however, only prospectively.”
Justice Piper Griffin was the lone dissenting vote. Justice James Genovese offered a partial dissent, saying Black defendants convicted through a split jury should only get a new trial if they can prove a Black juror opposed their conviction.
In her dissenting opinion, Griffin challenged the claim opponents of applying the Ramos decision retroactively that new trials for split-jury felons would be cost prohibitive.
“We must not perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences – and costs – of being right,” Griffin wrote. “Accordingly, I would apply Ramos retroactively to all defendants convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts. The integrity of our criminal justice system and legitimacy of the rule of law demands no less.”
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