Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Two years after Louisiana residents voted to end non-unanimous jury verdicts, and six months after the U.S. Supreme Court found them unconstitutional, more than 1,500 people convicted by non-unanimous juries remain locked up in the state’s prisons. According to a report released Tuesday by the Promise of Justice Initiative, 80 percent of those inmates are Black, compared to about two-thirds of the state’s full prison population. 

“The overall prison population — only 67.5% of the population is Black,” said Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at PJI, at a press conference on Tuesday. “And while that is disparate, and is not reflective of the general community, we see specifically when we look at people who are still in prison with non-unanimous jury verdicts that the disparity is even greater.”

The group analyzed prisoners who, as of now, are ineligible for retrial based on their unanimous verdicts, in spite of the statewide vote and the Supreme Court ruling. 

PJI representatives said the new findings about Black overrepresentation in these cases adds to already substantial evidence that non-unanimous jury laws are racist in both origin and effect. In Louisiana — only one of two states, in addition to Oregon, that have allowed non-unanimous jury convictions — the procedure dates back to a 1898 Constitutional Convention that was called to “establish the supremacy of the white race.” An analysis of dozens of cases in Baton Rouge done by The Advocate found that Black jurors were nearly 3 times more likely to vote against the majority in a non-unanimous convictions — and thus have their votes nullified by the law. 

“It was a method to silence the voices of Black jurors and a method in which the state was able to convict Black defendants,” Johnson said at the press conference.

In 2018, Louisiana voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment requiring unanimous juries. But the amendment only applied to cases that were initialized in 2019 or later. And this year the United States Supreme Court found that non-unanimous jury verdicts violate the constitution. The ruling, however, only applied to people whose convictions were still on direct appeal, and thus not yet finalized. That left more than 1,500 people in the state whose non-unanimous verdicts are still considered valid.

The court will hear oral arguments on another case — Edwards v. Vannoy — on December 2 to determine whether or not the ruling should be applied to those people who have already exhausted their appeals.

PJI has filed an amicus brief in that case urging the court to apply their decision to the 1,500 cases, and allow them to be given new trials. 

“The way we see it is this: This case will serve as an important test of whether America will continue to condemn the wrongs of the past while continuing to tolerate their impact on the present and the future,” Johnson said. 

Curtis Davis, executive director of the Reentry Mediation Institute of Louisiana, also spoke at the press conference. Davis was convicted by a non-unanimous jury in Shreveport for a 1990 murder he says he did not committ. In 2016, he was released after entering into a plea deal with the Caddo Parish DA’s office that reduced his charge to manslaughter. 

Davis said that the court not applying their ruling on non-unanmous juries retroactively would be “tantamount to the Union Army coming through, winning the Civil War, and basically saying, ‘Well, everybody who’s in slavery now has to stay in slavery, but from now on, there’s not going to be any more slavery.’”

PJI identified the cases by reaching out to the prisons across the state, along with talking to family members of incarcerated people, and reviewing appellate decisions and news articles that referenced non-unanimous verdicts. They then determined which of those individuals were still in prison.

The report also found that  62 percent of people with non-unanimous jury verdicts are serving life sentences, compared to around 16 percent of the rest of the state’s prison population. In addition, around 40 percent are over the age of 50. 

“That is a significant consideration when we look at a state that is dealing with an aging correctional population and the costs that come with caring for the people as they age in prison,” Johnson said. “Our prisons are not built to be nursing homes, and aging populations create real correctional difficulties.”

According to the report the largest number of cases with finalized non-unanimous jury convictions have come out of New Orleans, which has 324. Jefferson Parish has the next highest with 219, and then Caddo, with 166. But Johnson said the issue was statewide.

“We can see that these verdicts are across the state and are impacting communities from Ouachita to Boiser to Rapides and to Caddo,” she said. “Everywhere around the state has a connection to this issue.”

Both candidates in the Dec. 5 runoff election for Orleans Parish District Attorney — Keva Landrum and Jason Williams — have said they will review all of the over 300 non-unanimous jury verdicts obtained in New Orleans, regardless of what the Supreme Court rules in terms of retroactivity. 

Johnson said at the press conference that while they have had discussions with DAs in other parishes regarding individual cases, they have not gotten a similar commitment to look at the  She noted that while DA’s offices around the state weren’t responsible for the crafting of the law, they could play a role in mitigating its ongoing effects moving forward. 

“It was the sin of generations before,” Johnson said. “And so it really comes down to what they do now.”

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...