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It's time to finally clean up Louisiana's split jury mess

May 13, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.

When the United States Supreme Court overturns a controversial ruling from the 1970s, states may struggle to adjust their laws and procedures in the face of a new reality.

But our topic today is not Roe v. Wade.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that criminal convictions by divided juries were unconstitutional. That overturned a 1972 ruling in Apodaca v. Oregon, which held that states could set their own standards for how many jurors have to agree to a guilty verdict.

There were few howls of protest over the court's about-face in 2020. But Louisiana was left to sort out what to do about thousands of convictions that did not meet the new standard.

The Ramos ruling applied to cases that were still under appeal, but that excluded an estimated 1,500 inmates convicted by split juries whose cases had wrapped up. In 2021, the court held in Edwards v. Vannoy that the Ramos ruling did not apply retroactively.

Still, fairness demands that something be done. But legislators couldn't agree on what exactly, so they set up a study panel, headed by state Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace. The result is House Bill 744, which would create a commission to review the old cases and decide whether to allow a parole hearing.

The five-member commission, appointed by the governor, would include three retired appellate judges or Supreme Court justices, a retired district attorney, and a retired public defender. The panel would weigh the strength of the state's case, the nature of the offense, the quality of counsel, any indications of racial animus, length of deliberations and whether the non-unanimity was the result of jurors voting to acquit. It would have to agree unanimously, a provision which is opposed by advocates for the inmates.

The state Supreme Court is also weighing the question Tuesday in the case of Reginald Reddick, convicted on a 10-2 verdict of second-degree murder for the 1993 killing of Al Moliere in Plaquemines Parish.

Louisiana's unique divided jury laws originated in the Jim Crow era, out of the belief that Black jurors would be more likely to acquit Black defendants. They were crafted at an 1898 constitutional convention aiming to "perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana."

The laws worked just as racist legislators envisioned, disadvantaging Black defendants, according to extensive reporting by The Advocate, published in 2018, that reviewed about 3,000 felony trials over a six-year span. The newspaper found 993 convictions rendered by 12-member juries in which the actual jury votes could be documented.

The newspaper's analysis found that 40% of those trial convictions came over the objections of one or two holdouts. When the defendant was Black, the proportion went up to 43%, vs. 33% for White defendants.

The reporting, along with a bipartisan push to attack Louisiana's culture of incarceration, led to a 2018 statewide vote banning the practice of split jury convictions for cases in the future, and to the 2020 Ramos ruling.

The state Supreme Court may weigh in. But if it doesn't, HB744 provides an orderly way to clean up the mess that began in 1898.

-- The Advocate, May 10

Print Headline: It's time to finally clean up Louisiana's split jury mess

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