The case of Ricky Davis illustrates the reality of these prisoners. Davis is a New Orleans native. He was living in a motel in Baton Rouge after his home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A woman at the motel told him that a man who had raped her was in the parking lot. He gave her his phone to call 911 and went to get the man’s license plate. When the man tried to run him over, Davis shot and killed him.
Davis had never before been charged with a crime, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. What makes his case stand out is that only 10 jurors voted to convict, and even though in 48 states this would have resulted in a hung jury, in Louisiana at the time, it was enough to get Davis a life sentence.
At least 1,600 people in Louisiana are serving time in prison after non-unanimous verdicts. The law that allowed those verdicts had its origins in the 1898 state constitutional convention convened to “establish the supremacy of the white race” after Blacks had won the right to sit on juries as well as other liberties through the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. When examining the law, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in its 2020 opinion that the intent of the law was to “ensure African-American juror service would be meaningless.”
The law fulfilled its purpose with extraordinarily efficient effect. According to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, in 80% of criminal cases in Louisiana, only the votes of White jurors were necessary to convict. In a state where 52% of the jail population is Black, prospective Black jurors are nearly three times as likely as Whites to be disqualified from jury service, and Black jurors are two and a half times more likely than Whites to dissent in split decisions. The effect of the non-unanimous conviction law was particularly felt by Black citizens.
In Ramos v. Louisiana, 140 S. Ct. 1390 (2020), the Supreme Court held that the recent change in Louisiana law that required unanimous verdicts would only affect future cases and a limited number of convictions on appeal. Most of the 1,600 prisoners serving time under the old law, including Ricky Davis, would not be eligible for relief. The Court agreed in May 2020 to hear another case relating to the law that could expand its retroactive effect, but its outcome is unclear.
There is no shortage of advocates for retroactivity. Hillar Moore, the prosecutor who sent Ricky Davis to prison, has expressed support for changing the law in order to “restore some trust and legitimacy in our system and take away some of the criticism of our current jury system.”
As for Ricky Davis and others like him, all he can do is hope the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court will remove the burden placed upon him by a relic of the Jim Crow-era. “We will know,” Davis says, “if Black lives matter in the State of Louisiana when they make a decision on non-unanimous juries and stop a system that has had a negative effect on Black people.”
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