BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – About 1,500 people are in Louisiana prisons after unconstitutional non-unanimous jury convictions. There is a revived effort in the state legislature to get those people a chance at a new trial.
Up until a 2020 Supreme Court decision, Louisiana was one of two states that allowed juries to make a conviction with only 10 of the 12 jurors in agreement. The practice was outlawed in Ramos V. Louisiana – but the new rule does not currently apply retroactively.
“You’d assume there is automatically a remedy, well that remedy, in this case, has taken a lot of work to get to and we’re still not there,” said Jamila Johnson, deputy director of The Promise of Justice Initiative.
Of those 1,500 people convicted under non-unanimous juries, 80% are Black. The so-called Jim Crow Juries were created in the 1898 constitutional convention as a way to, legally at the time, establish white supremacy. Then the juries could be decided with a 3-9 vote and later was changed to 10-2 in the 1970s. The Ramos decision did not come down until 2020.
Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE, was convicted with a 10-2 jury and now is fighting to help people while the decision over if the law should be retroactive is stuck in court.
“The DA’s Association wants to wait for the state Supreme Court to see what the Supreme Court does. Okay, if the state Supreme Court decides that it’s retroactive then what?” Henderson questioned.
He believes the case could wind up back in the federal court if the state Supreme Court decides the law should not be retroactive. Henderson said the reason it didn’t apply that way in the original case was due to the route the case took to build the argument and the proper route can be found with a new case.
Bills by Rep. Jason Hughes and Rep. Randal Gaines aim to undo those convictions and give people a chance at a new trial, plea deals, or potentially become eligible for parole.
“It doesn’t mean that everybody comes home. It means they get the constitutional trial that they were deprived of because lawmakers in 1898 tried to take the rights of Black people,” Johnson said.
HB271 by Rep. Hughes would apply the Ramos ruling retroactively and would provide post-conviction relief. HB744 by Rep. Gaines asks the state Supreme Court to create a process to review cases of those still imprisoned who were convicted under a non-unanimous jury, then post-conviction assistance can be applied.
“The Jim Crow roots of this practice and the disparate impact on our communities, and the cost we are spending to unconstitutionally convict people, and the high number of people who are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of,” Johnson said.
There was a major push in the last session but the bill fell short. Arguments against the bill were that it would jam up already busy courts with the new trials. Others believe having new trials could traumatize victims of the crimes by having to bring up the previously closed case.
“You know, this law was a very bad law that was in place now that it no longer exists. How do we remedy this? How do we make people whole again?” Henderson asked.
The Louisiana Supreme Court announced in February they would hear arguments for the case of Reginald Reddick who was convicted in 1997 on a second-degree murder charge by a 10-2 jury. A decision has not yet been made.
As for the legislation, the Louisiana Legislature will convene on March 14. The two bills have not been scheduled for debate yet.