Jim Crow Juries, Bill to Fix Them

After a month, a bill (HB1077 by Representative Randal Gaines (D-57)) still waits in the House to potentially provide justice to those who were convicted with a non-unanimous jury.

The legislation would provide a potential path to freedom for people who had been convicted of felonies by non-unanimous juries in Louisiana. 

In Louisiana, a conviction without every juror’s vote to convict is called a Jim Crow Jury. This practice came into effect more explicitly in the 1890s as a work of white supremacy in hopes of legalizing segregation and barring Black Louisianans from certain rights such as schooling, voting, and lawmaking.

On November 6, 2018, Louisiana’s Constitutional Amendment 2 passed to end Louisiana’s Jim Crow Juries law moving forward. This was meant to go into effect after January 1, 2019.

The United States Supreme Court followed suit ruling on April 20, 2020 in Ramos v. Louisiana, moving that non-unanimous jury verdicts are unconstitutional. However, this was not a retroactively affecting ruling.

Statewide, 80 percent of people in prison with Jim Crow Juries are Black. In Orleans Parish that statistic jumps to 93 percent, according to The Promise of Justice Initiative, a coalition of crime survivors, victim’s families, and organizations that are hoping to create change within the criminal justice system. 

“More often than not, the person convicted was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or virtual life,” the site reads. “There are between 300 and 400 convictions from Orleans Parish where a person is still in prison with one of these convictions.”

And yet, with the Supreme Court ruling, these convictions were unconstitutional.

“By not addressing Jim Crow Juries, Jim Crow’s legacy continues today,” The Promise of Justice Initiative states. “Without a fair trial – one not impacted by this law – how can Louisiana’s criminal system be thought to be credible?”

Ramos v. Louisiana required that certain cases had retrials on “direct appeals.” These cases tended to be more recent.

The Supreme Court heard a second case, Edwards v. Vannoy, last year in which it was questioned whether or not everyone convicted with a Jim Crow Jury should be provided a new trial. However, in a 6-3 decision for Vannoy, the Supreme Court decided that Ramos v. Louisiana does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review, stating that it would undermine the principle of finality which is “critical to the operation of our criminal justice system.”

The Louisiana State Supreme Court, however, heard arguments earlier this month on whether such verdicts must be thrown out retroactively. This could potentially allow for non-unanimous verdicts from older cases in Louisiana to gain some relief.

The ruling is still pending.

With the new Louisiana State House bill, however, the legislation could change locally. It is currently on the House’s calendar.

The new House bill would allow those in jail by non-unanimous juries to apply for a review by a five-member board appointed by the governor. The board would then decide whether the applicant should become eligible for parole. 

However, as reported by The Advocate, Gaines withdrew this measure about the board last week due to disagreements within the House on whether the board’s decision had to be unanimous or not.

Gaines had argued that no court requires unanimous votes of its judge panels to decide appeals. District attorneys, however, raised safety concerns and insisted that the unanimous vote would be needed in cases that involved murder or rape.

The commission envisioned the bill would have included three retired appellate or Supreme Court justices, a retired district attorney, and a retired public defender. The five would review the case, looking at the strengths and the nature of the offense as well as if there were any racial indications to the ruling and vote if they would like to acquit.

“I understand their concerns,” Gaines said. “But the inconsistency; you can’t have an equitable system if it requires a unanimous vote to remedy a wrongful conviction from a non-unanimous jury.”

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