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

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