Louisiana Decides Future of Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts
Elliot Scharfenberg walks with his dog as he leaves his polling place after voting in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
AP photo by Gerald Herbert
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Voters will decide Tuesday whether Louisiana should join almost every other state in the nation where jury verdicts must be unanimous.
For decades jurors in felony trials — with the exception of death penalty cases — have been able to convict defendants with a 10-2 or 11-1 verdict.
Oregon is the only other state that allows split verdicts, and in Louisiana, support for joining the other 48 has been broad, with a rare coalition of conservatives and progressives calling for passage.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, and the only Democrat in the state congressional delegation, Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, supported it. So did groups as politically diverse as the Louisiana Family Forum and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Backers derided split-verdict felonies as a vestige of Jim Crow-era polices promoting white supremacy, making it easier to convict non-white defendants even if one or two non-whites are on a jury. And they noted the possibility of a non-unanimous jury convicting innocent defendants.
A video distributed by the Unanimous Jury Coalition featured two exonerated convicts who had been imprisoned as a result of split verdicts.
Even the conservative Koch-brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity exploited this fear, in a 30-second online ad for the amendment.
"Imagine your child is charged with a crime she didn't commit," the ad said. "Multiple jurors agree she is innocent but the government sends her to prison anyway. It happens in Louisiana."
Nishi Kumar, a volunteer for the Yes on 2 campaign, was out Tuesday morning waving a sign to encourage drivers to support the measure. Her interest in the amendment comes from the criminal defense work she does with the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based organization that advocates for reforms.
"It's just a very antiquated law. It's based in Jim Crow. It's based in racism, and it's time to overturn it," she said.
Anne Ferris, a 43-year-old New Orleans resident, said she hadn't realized until recently that felony juries didn't have to be unanimous.
"There should be a unanimous verdict whenever there's a jury trial. If there's not a unanimous verdict then it's a hung jury," she said. "If it makes it harder, sorry.
The prosecution needs to do a little bit better I guess."
While broad, support wasn't unanimous.
Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier was a vocal opponent as the amendment moved through the Legislature, and Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett said it would thwart justice by enabling a single juror to block a conviction in a case where evidence is clearly beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Child molesters, drug dealers, murderers — it's going to make it tougher than ever to convict them," Burkett said in an interview.
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association stayed officially neutral. But, some prosecutors gave full-throated support.
District attorneys backing the measure included Hillar Moore III in Baton Rouge, James Stewart in Caddo Parish, Keith Stutes in Lafayette, and Paul Connick of Jefferson Parish in suburban New Orleans. New Orleans' district attorney Leon Cannizzaro stayed neutral.
"Once you know the history of this law, then you have to vote to repeal it," former Grant Parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley, a Republican, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge. "This is something that is a stain on the legacy of our state."
By AP reporters Kevin McGill and Rebecca Santana