Saturday, September 26, 2020

Nonunanimous Juries Under Hard Scrutiny in Louisiana


The framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted the

Sixth Amendment with a unanimous vote of twelve in mind.

John Addams (1797):

"It is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind."

Yet, for 122 years, in Louisiana, the prosecutor needed to persuade only 10 out of 12 jurors for a felony conviction that does not involve the death penalty.

All other states (except Oregon) always required unanimous jury decisions in felony cases – as did the federal system, including federal courts in Louisiana and Oregon.

Louisiana required unanimous verdicts when it became a territory in 1803, but non-unanimous verdicts were formally adopted as law during Louisiana's 1898 constitutional convention, when lawmakers declared that their “mission was…to establish the supremacy of the white race.”

Non-unanimous juries:

  • paved the way for quick convictions
  • facilitated the use of free prisoner labor to cover the loss of free slave labor
  • ensured that Black jurors could not block convictions of other African Americans
  • made it easier to manipulate poor people – whether guilty or innocent – into accepting “plea deals” rather than face the possibility of conviction by a jury

Non-unanimous jury laws:

  • were opposed by the American Bar Association
  • ignored research proving that unanimous verdicts are more reliable and thorough
  • ignored research proving that nonunanimous verdicts contribute to mass incarceration and wrongful convictions
  • circumvented measures to protect the voices of minority jurors
  • reduced the value of votes by any dissenting jury member, no matter who they are

In November of 2018, Louisiana voters amended the State constitution to do away with the practice of convicting – and locking up – men and women without establishing their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Amendment was challenged, but on April 20, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous jury convictions are unconstitutional.

Two weeks later, the SCOTUS agreed to hear arguments on a case that could well make the State of Louisiana apply the earlier ruling retroactively (based on racial discrimination) because the U.S. Constitution’s intent was always clear on this matter. And they have now set a date, announcing that they will hear oral arguments in Edwards v. Vannoy on November 30th. If the Court rules in favor of Edwards, anyone now incarcerated in Louisiana who was convicted by a nonunanimous jury might qualify to request a new trial. This will involve thousands of incarcerated citizens, some of whom have already served decades waiting for the justice they deserve.

The Louisiana State Supreme Court also has a case before it that might decide the matter even before the U.S. Supreme Court does. If the LA SSC decides to re-hear Gipson v. Louisiana and decides in Gipson's favor, they will avoid having the U.S. Supreme Court force Louisiana to do the right thing. Needless to say, loved ones and supporters all over the state are following this story with bated breath.

If you want to support this effort to bring Louisiana into the 21st Century, the Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation (LA-NCJT) is selling a limited number of t-shirts for $20. They've already sold them to law professors, organizers, loved ones, and formerly incarcerated citizens. For more information, email

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Life and Death in Angola

I remember when I got the call that my son – a White shotcaller for a Black gang in Ft. Lauderdale – was dead. I hit the floor like a falling tree, the phone still to my ear and my brain reeling. His body was at the morgue and, because he had already been identified, they would only let me see a photo of his face, already deformed by rigor mortis. The young female doctor about to do the autopsy told me he was a handsome man. It was February 27, 2000 – the kind of day no mother ever wants to see. I know because I have a tattoo on my shoulder with his name and the date and it was two weeks before his 23rd birthday. When I was invited to write a statement on life and death as folks inside Angola try to deal with the most recent brutal and senseless death among them, my thoughts went straight to my son.

He’s not the only one I’ve known personally to die a violent death. I was 18 when a schoolmate was stabbed to death by her mother’s boyfriend and stuffed behind a couch. My father and one of my husbands committed suicide. The first ex-prisoner I ever met (back in 1971) was stabbed to death a couple of years after I met him. And I heard many years after we broke up that my first ex-prisoner lover was stabbed to death with his girlfriend by somebody in Oklahoma never identified. But to carry a child in your body and feed him at your breast and watch him grow to 6’4” and face the world with his shoulders back and his eyes steady and then have him reduced to a tattoo on your shoulder is not something you get over.