A New Year, A New Verdict: Implications of Unanimous Juries (YES on 2)

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Photo Credit: msppmoore, Flickr Creative Commons

The 2019 New Year is fast approaching. What will we see now that Louisiana has successfully voted YES on 2? A 120-year practice, Louisiana required only 10 of 12 jurors to agree on a guilty verdict in felony cases. If two members of a jury were convinced of innocence, a person could, nonetheless, be convicted and imprisoned for life. However, Nov 6th, Louisiana citizens voted to begin the practice of unanimous juries: 64% voting in favor and 36% voting no.   

Will Snowden is director of the New Orleans office for Vera Institute of Justice, former New Orleans public defender, and Founder of The Juror Project. He speaks on the historic passing of Amendment #2 and also addresses implications of its practice, moving forward.

NN: Taking a brief look back at 120 years of nonunanimous juries.  What injustices will we no longer see as a result of Amendment #2 passing?

Snowden: One major injustice that regularly occurred with nonunanimous verdicts was two people who had doubts in the case and actually voted not guilty – their votes will actually count now. Going forward, starting January 1st, 2019, when there are folks that have doubts, that don’t believe the prosecutor has proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt – they can now have a mechanism to prevent innocent people from going to prison. We know that at least 12 people since 1989 were wrongfully convicted via nonunanimous verdicts. So what that means is when those folks went to trial there was either one person or 2 people who voted not guilty. But because we did not require unanimity, they couldn’t prevent an innocent person from going to prison. I think that’s an injustice that everybody would recognize and everybody would see: that nobody should serve time for a crime that they simply did not commit. And furthermore, we should not be providing closure in a case on a false conviction because the person that actually did commit the crime is on the street.

When we talk about a jury of your peers, we often think about the demographics of a particular Parish and what that looks like. We know that African Americans are more likely to be convicted via nonunanimous verdicts. We also know that African Americans are, more often than not, those two individuals voting in the minority – voting not guilty. If you have folks on the jury that, more often than not, their votes are not counting [then] you are not actually having a jury of your peers. Because if the 10 majority folks aren’t your peers, and the two that are are voting not guilty, then their presence doesn’t even matter. And that was kind of the intent. So that will be an injustice that will no longer be perpetuated by nullifying certain votes on that jury.

NN: What does this say for people who voted against it?

Snowden: I think despite them voting against it – this actually benefits them. This country was founded on the sanctity of individual liberty… We know that there are biases within our justice system that could land an innocent person in the defense chair.  

So for the people that voted against it, they very well could be an innocent person sitting in that chair. I guarantee you, at that point in time, they will want to make sure that everybody’s vote counted. If one person had doubt that could prevent them, as an innocent person, from going to prison. 

So when thinking about the people that voted against it – I think they will get with the times of taking our justice system into the 21st century.  

NN: Can you speak into the immediate changes that we will see as a result of the amendment passing?

Snowden: One immediate change is that Oregon has been inspired to change [their nonunanimous laws]. Louisiana’s nonunanimous verdicts have been rooted in racism; Oregon’s is rooted in anti-semitism. Both of them are rooted in hate and neither of them belongs in any part of the criminal justice system. So what was really inspiring is that Oregon took influence from us. They had their state legislators a few days after November 6 [elections] saying that they would be introducing legislation in 2019 to change their laws as well.

Secondarily, January 2nd, 2019,  when the courts are back open, you’re not going to see a trial require a unanimous jury. Unfortunately, the law only applies to offenses that were committed after January 1st, 2019. So you have all these cases from this year, from 2018, that will likely go to trial in 2019 – but the law as written is not retroactive. So those trials will still be nonunanimous. We really won’t see the effects of requiring unanimous juries until 2020, or the end of 2019. And the reason why I say that is because it takes anywhere between six months and two years to go to trial. We likely wouldn’t have that first unanimous jury requirement until the second half of 2019.  

But, I think [now] more people [will] want to go to trial. Because they feel that they actually have an even playing field. Whereas before, when folks were deciding if they wanted to go to trial or not,  they often would view the prosecutor as already having the head start. Two of those votes didn’t matter and those were the two votes that the prosecutor would not need to prove their case.  

And so now, I think as a result of a more even playing field, more people will consider going to trial. That will mean less cases resolving in a plea deal and more people having a growing faith in our actual juror system.

Despite the historic change that Amendment 2 brings for Louisiana’s justice system, Snowden advises that there is a need for continuing the momentum of improvements that will bring the justice system into the 21st century.  He highlighted the following areas:

  • Improving the orientation process for jurors: this process is currently being completed by judges. Instead, the process could be completed by video. This change would provide a consistent message across courtrooms and across Parishes.  
  • Improving how jurors are allowed to deliberate: jurors are not typically sequestered into a hotel unless it is a high profile case. Ordinarily, jurors will deliberate late into the evening, which can tire jurors into making decisions. The desire to come up with a verdict could be motivated by wanting to go home rather than being motivated by guilt or innocence. If jury deliberation hours are changed to mirror a 9 to 5 job, people can go home, spend time with their family, not talk about the case, and return the next day for deliberation.

Overall, work needs to be done to change the narrative around jury duty, making the process seem less burdensome. Snowden says, “there are some that think jury duty is something to get out of and that is the exact opposite. We want people to see jury duty as an opportunity to make sure somebody gets a fair trial.”

Nicole Nixon is a dedicated wife and mother who values leadership and business. Motivated by her husband and her son, she is vested in the empowerment and positive commercialization of black men in America. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to check out her piece “A Mother’s Cry,” or her other articles here.

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