The results of the November midterm elections have been plastered all over the news these past few weeks, but one result you might not be aware of comes out of the great state of Louisiana. Voters in Louisiana approved an amendment to their Constitution that will now require a unanimous jury to convict a defendant of a felony.
Back in the 19th century, Louisiana enacted a law that allowed juries to convict defendants of felonies with only a 9-3 majority vote. The law was eventually changed to 10-2, but on November 6, 2018 voters decided to change the law to require the jury to agree unanimously putting an end to the “Jim Crow” era law.
The history of Louisiana’s law is a racist one. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was a federal law passed to “protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights.” One big change from the law was that African Americans would be allowed to serve on juries.
Louisiana lawmakers responded by passing the non-unanimous jury law in an effort to prevent the effect one black man could have on a jury. Essentially, the lawmakers of 19th century Louisiana were afraid that one sole African American on a jury would have the power to acquit a defendant by refusing to vote guilty. So, they simply changed the law to keep the power in the hands of the undoubtedly white majority on the jury.
Hiding Split Jury Verdicts
While the initial law was passed back in 1875, the effects can still be seen today. The Advocate studied the outcome of 5,000 criminal trials in Louisiana and found that 33% of white defendants were convicted by non-unanimous juries, 43% of black defendants were convicted by non-unanimous juries. In an effort to prevent the public from realizing the racist effect of Louisiana’s law, legislators passed a bill in May 2018 (that went into effect in August 2018) that would allow courts to seal the records of non-unanimous jury convictions. And, even when those records are unsealed by Court order, the names and races of jury members are redacted.
Proponents of the new law requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases are hoping that the new law will bring down Louisiana’s incarceration rate, which is currently 2nd in the nation. The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s spokesperson claims it will have little effect on conviction numbers or even the approach of his office’s prosecutors, claiming the “…goal is always justice, not guilty verdicts.”
Since Louisiana voted to amend its Constitution, Oregon is now the only state in the union that does not require unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases. Oregon does, however, require a unanimous verdict in murder cases.
Both Oregon and Louisiana were able to keep non-unanimous jury laws on the books because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two separate cases (Apodaca v. Oregon and Johnson v. Louisiana) that they did not violate the due process clause of the 14th amendment. While federal courts require unanimous verdicts in all felony cases, states are free to make their own laws governing jury requirements. The U.S. Supreme Court wrote in its decision that the presence of a certain number of dissenting jurors does not mean the state failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and that requiring unanimity would not contribute to a jury’s purpose of providing “commonsense judgment.” Both of those cases were decided in 1972.
With Louisiana passing its new law, Oregon is the sole state remaining. So, even though the Supreme Court has given the states authority to decide whether or not a unanimous verdict is required, it seems the voters have realized the effects of those laws and used their voting power to take a stand.
For more information about criminal defense in Louisiana, please contact Shreveport attorney J. Ransdell Keene.