Louisiana altered its own constitution in 1898 to include a way to disadvantage its Black citizens by making a new jury guideline allowing for criminal convictions on a majority finding of guilt rather than a unanimous one. A newspaper at that time heralded the standard, stating it would obviate the perceived “need for popular justice,” that era’s euphemism for lynching.
This hostile law achieved its desired effect. Statistics show Louisiana’s Black citizens make up around 80 percent of its prison system due in large part to non-unanimous guilty verdicts by juries. About 66 percent of those unjustly convicted Black citizens are serving life without parole sentences. Scores of those convictees are juvenile offenders.
“In 2018, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment requiring unanimous juries. But the amendment only applied to cases that were initialized in 2019 or later,” according to the nonprofit The Lens.
Oregon had a similar law to Louisiana’s.
In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court struck both states’ laws, ruling they violate the U.S. Constitution. Now only unanimous findings of guilt by juries can result in a prison sentence. Having found that practice unconstitutional, the Supreme Court stopped short of announcing whether its decision applies retroactively to convictions predating the April ruling.
The Supreme Court is now considering a case to decide the retroactivity of its April decision. If the movants succeed in a retroactivity ruling, all prisoners in Louisiana and Oregon currently in prison based on non-unanimous jury verdicts would have to be given new trials or plea agreements with probable reduced sentences as inducements to plead out. Oral arguments in Edwards v. Vannoy were presented in early December 2020, and the case is now pending a final decision.
“None of the lawyers who argued the case … could confirm the actual number of current prisoners that would be affected if the Supreme Court makes the unanimous jury ruling retroactive,” according to NPR. “The Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and other groups have documented that it would affect at least 955 prisoners who were convicted by non-unanimous juries, and they speculate that it could affect another 646 past cases in which there is not yet documented proof of a split verdict.”
Should a ruling requiring retroactive application be decided, those Louisiana cases would have to be relitigated. The caseload on prosecutors would average two added cases per district attorney, according to the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Orleans Public Defenders and Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans.
Prosecutors claim it would be impossible to try some of those older cases and that it will be unfair to crime victims as well.
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