Louisiana attorneys seek to overturn ‘Jim Crow’ jury decisions

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A New Orleans-based nonprofit is seeking new trials or release for more than 1,500 Louisianans convicted by non-unanimous juries.

Advocates are trying to overturn convictions reached under a practice developed during the “Jim Crow” era that followed post-Civil War reconstruction.

“Jim Crow juries are systemic racism defined,” Jamila Johnson, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, said Wednesday.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has argued the non-unanimous jury rule was not designed with racist intent, and that forcing courts to reconsider non-unanimous convictions could create a severe burden on the state’s judicial system.

Before 2018, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed criminal convictions by juries that didn’t all agree the defendant was guilty. Louisiana voters amended the state constitution that year to require unanimous verdicts in felony cases, but the change only applied to future charges.

The U.S. Supreme Court in April ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous verdicts for convictions in criminal trials. In light of that decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ordered appellate courts to review more than three dozen criminal convictions that were decided by less-than-unanimous juries.

But the state Supreme Court only sent for review cases that were pending when the Ramos decision was announced. Neither the state nor federal high court has yet ruled on whether Ramos should be applied retroactively, though the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the question later this year.

Louisiana first endorsed non-unanimous verdicts at a state constitutional convention in 1898. One committee chairman said the convention’s purpose was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.”

The Sixth Amendment requires trial “by an impartial jury,” but it doesn’t explicitly say such juries must reach unanimous decisions to convict. But common law, state practices when the nation was founded, and “opinions and treatises” written soon afterward make the requirement clear, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

In a brief filed in defense of Louisiana’s practice, Landry and others argued Louisiana’s longstanding practice of allowing 9-3 jury decisions, and later 10-2 decisions after changing the law in 1973, was fully compatible with the Sixth Amendment.

Landry’s brief warned that thousands of convictions in Louisiana and Oregon would be in doubt if the unanimous jury requirement was deemed retroactive.

“Of course, Louisiana would argue against retroactive application of a new unanimous-jury rule,” the brief states. “Win or lose, though, the flood of motions has already begun, and the burden on the court system will be severe.”

District attorneys aren’t concerned about having to convince 12 people to convict and are willing to play by whatever the rules are, Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said Wednesday.

But in some jurisdictions, a flood of new cases could put a strain on courts already dealing with backlogs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. And trying old cases with evidence that is years if not decades old is not ideal.

“District attorneys are concerned about assuring justice is done on both sides of the equation, both for the defendant and for the victim and the victim’s family as well,” Lampert said. “To ignore [the victim’s] side of the equation is to deny justice as well.”

By the end of the day Wednesday, attorneys with the Promise of Justice Initiative expected to have filed 30 petitions on behalf of clients convicted by non-unanimous juries. The petitions seek new trials or ask the court to sentence them to time served, effectively ending their sentences and setting them free.

Louisiana law can be read to bar relief to any person convicted by a non-unanimous jury who has not filed an application for post-conviction relief within one year from the date of the Ramos decision, which was issued April 20, and not raised an argument as to why the decision should be retroactive, Johnson said. So if that interpretation holds, people seeking to assert their rights under Ramos should file by April 20 next year to avoid possible procedural problems.

At a virtual news conference held Wednesday, Miranda Jordan said her mother was among those convicted by a 10-2 verdict. She said her mother was convicted of killing someone who was trying to break into the family’s home.

Her mother previously had brushes with the law and issues with substance abuse but was in recovery, she said, suggesting she had been judged based on her past and not the evidence. Two jurors thought she was innocent, while others would have preferred a lesser sentence. The conviction caused her siblings to be separated, and she and her brother became homeless, she said.

“There were two jurors who decided that my mother was not guilty,” Jordan said. “The court decided to ignore the very jurors that they selected.”

The Promise of Justice Initiative has filed a brief in Edwards v. Vannoy urging the U.S. Supreme Court to apply Ramos retroactively.

“But regardless of the outcome of that case, Louisiana legislators, judges, and prosecutors have an obligation to address the plight of the people who remain imprisoned on the basis of Jim Crow jury convictions,” Johnson said.