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

Over a dozen people who recently had their convictions based on non-unanimous jury verdicts vacated by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams office last month accepted plea deals to lesser charges at a court hearing on Wednesday. A number of them will walk free after spending years or decades in prison. 

The hours-long virtual hearing, which took place in front of Judge Nandi Campbell in Section G of Criminal District Court, was the first look at what Williams said will be a regular occurrence during his term, as his office sets about vacating and renegotiating convictions that were based on non-unanimous verdicts

Families joined on the Zoom call to support their incarcerated loved ones. Defendants testified about their experiences while in prison and the pain of being separated from their children, and defense lawyers described plans for those released to get back on their feet — including employment opportunities, housing, and support networks. 

Officials in the DA’s office said they worked diligently to contact victims of the crimes in the cases. Some could not be located. Others gave statements that were read by the lawyers. 

Ben Cohen, chief of appeals for the DA’s office, described contacting one victim of an aggravated rape who was on hospice care to tell her that the conviction of the alleged perpetrator had been vacated.  Another victim, who had been shot in the face by one of the people whose conviction was vacated, testified that he supported his assailant’s release, but was furious over the fact that he had not been contacted by the DA’s office prior to the conviction being vacated. He called for Williams’ resignation. 

Louisiana is one of two states that allowed non-unanimous jury convictions. The law establishing the practice was passed during an 1898 rewrite of the state constitution, which had the stated purpose of “reestablishing the white race.” Critics say the law was intended to nullify the votes of black jurors and make it easier to convict black defendants. But unlike other Jim Crow era legislation, it remained on the books until quite recently. It wasn’t until 2018 that voters in the state passed a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous verdicts. But that only applied to crimes committed in 2019 or later.

Then last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous verdicts were unconstitutional. That ruling nullified verdicts in cases where defendants had not exhausted their appeals. But it did not apply to cases that had gone through the appeals process — including hundreds of people who still remained in Louisiana prisons. 

The Supreme Court is set to rule later this year in yet another case, Edwards v. Vannoy, that could extend last year’s decision to all non-unanimous verdicts, including cases in which convictions were finalized. But Williams, while running for DA last year, said if elected, he would not wait for that ruling and would conduct a full review of New Orleans’ non-unanimous convictions. 

The 22 vacated sentences last month were the beginning of that process — which the office is calling the Undoing Jim Crow Juries Civil Rights Initiative. The office began with all cases out of Section G of Criminal District Court with pending post-conviction relief applications based on non-unanimous verdicts, and Williams said the office will be moving through the cases section by section. 

The hearing

At Wednesday’s hearing, a number of the defendants took plea deals on new charges where the maximum sentence was less than the amount of time they had already spent in prison — meaning they will be released imminently. A few of the defendants will likely have to spend a few more years in prison — though far less time than they were initially sentenced to. 

As part of the plea agreements, defendants pledged not to bring any lawsuits alleging overdetention. They also agreed not to bring any litigation related to potential changes in the law that could transpire following the deal — including changes that could result from the upcoming Edwards v. Vannoy decision.

In perhaps the most dramatic portion of the hearing, the victim of a shooting, Erik Beelman gave an emotional testimony regarding what he experienced after being shot in the face in 2006 and the subsequent trauma of learning that the conviction of the alleged perpetrator was being vacated — not from the DA’s office, but from a reporter with the Times-Picayune. 

Beelman was shot in the face outside of a hotel in 2006. Christopher Marlowe was arrested in the incident and charged with attempted murder, and eventually convicted by a 11-1 jury verdict.

“The date that this happened was June 27, 2006. I’m still suffering as a result of it,” Beelman said as he held up pictures of his wounded face following the incident. “When I got word that this trial was going to be happening, I wasn’t called graciously by the DA’s office. I was called by a reporter from The Times-Picayune following a press release by the DA.”

Beelman said he tried to kill himself after he had learned that Marlowe’s conviction had been vacated, and he considered the prospect of going through another trial. But he then made the decision to reach out to the Louisiana Department of Corrections to see if he could go visit Marlowe in prison. The visit was expedited, and he was able to go to Rayburn Correctional Center last Friday to see him. 

Beelman said that he forgave Marlowe, and that he would support his release as soon as possible. He encouraged Marlowe to reach out if he ever “went to a dark place” and needed support. 

“We cried. We hugged. We spoke for about four hours,” Beelman said. “That day I forgave Christopher Marlowe. I said when you get out of here, I don’t want you to look back. I want you to live your life. And I don’t want you to think that you’re a bad person.”

But Beelman remained furious about the fact that he was not notified by the DA’s office prior to the decision. He also said he resented being associated with anything having to do with “systemic racism or white supremacy.” 

Both Beelman and Marlowe are white. The other 21 defendants who had their convictions vacated last month, however, are Black. The Promise of Justice Initiative, a local legal nonprofit working on non-unanimous convictions, reported that 80 percent of people serving sentences on split-jury verdicts across the state are Black. 

Beelman ended his testimony by calling for Williams’ resignation.

‘There’s a lot of hurt in this system’

The case stands in contrast to that of Jermaine Hudson, who had been convicted of armed robbery in 2000 on a non-unanimous verdict, and also had his case vacated last month. 

Hudson was also planning on pleading to a lesser charge on Wednesday in order to get out of prison. But before he could do so, the purported victim in his case came forward and said he had lied about being robbed so he wouldn’t have to tell his father that he had spent the money on drugs. 

Hudson was exonerated of the charges last week after spending 22 years in prison. In an affidavit, the man who recanted said he was “tortured by the lies I told.”

Judge Nandi Campbell said the two cases showed the way the criminal justice system had failed both victims and those who have been convicted of crimes. 

“I just last week listened to the case of Mr. Hudson because the victim could not tell his father that he was addicted to drugs,” Campbell said, “and so there is a lot of hurt in this system. And until we reform it and do it right, we are going to continually have these stories of victims who don’t have closure, and people who are in jail, and don’t deserve to be in jail. 

The DA’s office has not yet announced publicly which section of court it will look at next. The Promise of Justice Initiative estimated prior to Williams’ election that there are over 300 people still incarcerated in Orleans Parish on non-unanimous jury convictions. 

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...