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Louisiana Ends Jim Crow-era Law: Unanimous Jury Requirement Now in Constitution

by Virginia Griese

The new year brings an end to an archaic Jim Crow-era law in Louisiana that allowed split juries in criminal cases. Felony convictions or acquittals in the state now require unanimous jury decisions, thanks to voters in Louisiana approving constitutional Amendment 2.

Before the November 6, 2018 vote, a Louisiana resident could be convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison, including life without parole, on a 10-2 or 11-1 verdict. The split vote challenged the constitutional guarantee of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

It wasn’t always that way. Unanimous juries were required in the state’s early days.

But an 1898 constitutional convention manifested a mass of Jim Crow laws designed to incarcerate African-Americans after the Civil War and to “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana,” as stated by Laurence Powell. Powell is a historian at Tulane University in New Orleans and claimed that the convention was “famous for disenfranchising black voters. It was also around the time of the Plessy [v. Ferguson] case that just got sanction from the U.S. Supreme Court for racial segregation.”

Included in this convention was legislation allowing for split-jury decisions in serious felony criminal cases, requiring 10 of 12 jurors in agreement. That way, prosecutors did not have the burden of proving their case to all 12 jurors, especially when jurors who might represent the defendant’s class could be ignored.

Amendment 2 has a history of advocacy; in 1974, the split-jury threshold was raised from 9-3 to 10-2. Recently, advocates sued the state after a murder trial jury was split 10-2. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

With Amendment 2, unanimous trial convictions should be harder to come by, in theory. In requiring a full 12-person jury that a defendant is, without a reasonable doubt, guilty, more defendants may take the chance of going to trial.

As the amendment grew in public approval, several prosecutors spoke in favor of it, although a spokesperson for Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. said he doesn’t “anticipate any substantial difference in jury verdicts in Jefferson Parish with the passage of Amendment Two,” adding that “our goal is always justice, not guilty verdicts.”

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John F. DeRosier, meanwhile, argued for retaining the split jury system. “I’ve heard a lot about this system being adopted as a result of a vestige of slavery,” DeRosier said. “I have no reason to doubt that. I’m not proud of that. That’s the way it started, but it is what it is. However, ladies and gentlemen, that was 138 years ago.” Louisiana Rep. Ted James, a black attorney from Baton Rouge, fired back at DeRosier: “I am so utterly offended for you to start your comments and say ‘I know that this was rooted in slavery, but it is what it is.’” James assured DeRosier that he would make known his indifference toward racism.

The only state that now allows split juries in felony cases is Oregon, although murder trials require unanimous juries. 

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Sources: vox.com, nola.com

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