Constitutional amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts passes state Senate committee

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BATON ROUGE— A Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday proposing a constitutional amendment that would require juries to reach unanimous verdicts in all felony cases.

Senate Bill 243 strikes through a single word in the state constitution to require all members of a 12-person jury to vote to convict a defendant in a felony case.

Louisiana and Oregon are the only states that allow non-unanimous verdicts in jury trials.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans and the author of the bill, said Louisiana’s status as an outlier puts it at risk of being on the wrong end of a ruling by the United States Supreme Court. If the high court were to declare the current law unconstitutional, it could apply that ruling retroactively, causing “chaos” in the Louisiana justice system, Morrell said.

The committee voted 5-1 to advance the proposal to the Senate floor. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association opposed the bill, and Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Baton Rouge, cast the lone no vote.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 in Apodaca v. Oregon that non-unanimous jury verdicts are constitutional.

Ed Tarpley, a proponent of the bill and a former district attorney for Grant Parish, framed the issue as a constitutional one.

“This is about liberty,” Tarpley said. “If you love the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, then you have to support the senator’s bill.”

Tarpley testified that the law allowing non-unanimous verdicts, which was ratified in the state in 1898, was a racially-motivated relic of the post-Reconstruction era and a departure from the centuries-old legal tradition requiring unanimity in jury trials.

The policy was last updated in the 1974 Constitutional Convention. State lawmakers adopted the current jury requirements requiring at least a 10-2 vote. That was a one-vote increase over the 1898 standard, Tarpley said.

“When you look at the system we have in Louisiana, it’s legal schizophrenia,” Tarpley said. “Because for a six-person jury, the verdict has to be unanimous. For a capital case, the verdict has to be unanimous. But in the middle, for any other felony, you can be convicted by a 10-out-of-12 vote.”

S. Christie Smith, of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, spoke in support of the proposal and highlighted data from a 1997 study conducted by the Public Law Research Institute.

“The data strongly suggests that when a jury is required to reach a unanimous verdict, the jury focuses less on getting to a verdict and more on the facts themselves, which obviously is the ultimate objective of a trial,” Smith said.

Citing the same study, he added that requiring unanimity only increased the average length of jury deliberations to about two hours, up from 73 minutes.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana Association of District Attorneys, opposed advancing the bill, citing the lack of recent data on the effect of requiring unanimity. He proposed deferring the bill to allow further study of the issue by the Louisiana State Law Institute.

He said requiring unanimity would increase the number of hung juries and increase state spending on retrials.

“In today’s society, getting 10 out of 12, in any group, to agree on any topic is a phenomenal task,” Adams said. “In today’s Twitter, social media society, everybody is in their own little corner. The fact is, more so than ever before, people take their agendas into the courtroom, and I think you’re inviting jury nullification by requiring unanimous verdicts.”

Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans and a co-author of the bill, took issue with Adams’ request.

“I don’t know that punting this to another study is necessarily the answer, given the length of time we have been dealing with this,” Carter said.

In his closing comments, Morrell asked: “How do you have ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ when two people have doubt?”

To take effect, the proposed amendment would have to pass both houses of the Legislature by a two-thirds vote. It would then require a simple majority in a statewide referendum.

This story was reported by the LSU Manship School News Service, a student news service that covers the Louisiana Legislature.

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