An Orleans Parish jail inmate in 2016. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens) Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Tuesday will mark one year since the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana were “a pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans, especially in voting and jury service,” and that they were unconstitutional.

That decision mandated that defendants convicted on non-unanimous verdicts in Louisiana — one of two states, along with Oregon, that allowed the practice  —  and had not yet exhausted their direct appeals, a new trial. 

But for about 1,500 people in prison whose split-jury verdicts were finalized, the Supreme Court decision only started a countdown. Louisiana law requires that any petition for post-conviction relief that is “based upon a final ruling of an appellate court establishing a theretofore unknown interpretation of constitutional law” must be filed within a year of that ruling.

That means any defendant who wants to challenge their conviction based on the Ramos decision without being potentially barred by the time constraint will need to file their petitions by tomorrow.  

Attorneys for the Promise of Justice Initiative, a legal non-profit in New Orleans, say they were aware of the time crunch, and started working on finding defendants with split-jury verdicts and getting applications ready to file even before the Ramos decision came down. 

At a press conference on Monday, they announced that in the year since the ruling they have filed over 1,000 post-conviction relief petitions throughout the state for defendants who were convicted on split-jury verdicts whose convictions were finalized.

“When the Supreme Court said they would hear the Ramos case, we were acutely aware that the decision would require more work to achieve a remedy for the men and women who remain in Louisiana’s prisons with these convictions,” said Jamila Johnson, managing attorney of PJI’s Jim Crow Juries Project. “We began to talk to men and women across the state of Louisiana to help them understand what Ramos could mean and the next steps. We researched in courthouses, in the prisons. We spoke to mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, pastors, jurors.” 

Johnson said to her knowledge it was “largest campaign for post-conviction relief in Louisiana history, perhaps the country.” 

The formidable task was made even more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnon said, which shut down the opportunity for visitation between defendants and lawyers and exacerbated the challenge of accessing court records and case files. 

In addition to filing the nearly 1,040 applications, PJI also provided instruction for over 300 people in prison to file their own petitions, and gave guidance to private attorneys as well.

The path forward for those prisoners who have filed their post-conviction applications by Tuesday is still uncertain. 

The United States Supreme Court is considering another case that will determine whether or not their decision in Ramos should be expanded to include people who have exhausted their appeals. That case — Edwards v. Vannoy — was argued in December and will likely be decided by early summer. If the court expands Ramos, those defendants will be entitled to new trials. 

Last year, Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court Bernette Johnson made the argument that the state’s highest court should should treat those convictions as illegitimate now — even lacking a final decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. In a June dissenting opinion, Johnson wrote that the state is “free to provide our citizens with more than the minimum mandated by the [United States] Supreme Court,” and that she was “persuaded that we should take this opportunity to squarely address the historic injustices done to Louisiana’s African American citizens by the use of the non-unanimous jury rule.”

“Defendants convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts are prisoners of a law that was designed to discriminate against them and disproportionately silence African American jurors,” she wrote.
“Simply pledging to uphold the Constitution in future criminal trials does not heal the wounds already inflicted on Louisiana’s African American community by the use of this law for 120 years.”

The majority of her colleagues, however, voted to hold off on addressing the issue. 

There is also the potential for a change in state law that would provide relief for those defendants. A bill pending at the Louisiana legislature this session would change procedural laws to ensure new trials, or a shot at parole, for anyone convicted in non-unanimous jury decisions. 

In Orleans Parish, where PJI has filed the most post-conviction applications of anywhere in the state, District Attorney Jason Williams has decided to take the matter into his own hands by independently reviewing cases with non-unanimous verdicts and vacating those convictions.

As a result, his office has tossed the convictions of 22 defendants — the majority of which have pleaded to lesser charges. 

At a forum earlier this month, Williams said that presented his plan to the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association in the hopes that prosecutors in other jurisdictions “will look at our plan and realize that it is doable.” 

But the LDAA has indicated that it will wait for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Edwards to make any broad decisions about how to proceed with cases that had split-jury verdicts but have exhausted their appeals — though they support individual DA’s discretion to handle the cases as they see fit. 

In an interview with The Lens, Jamila Johnson said that in other parishes outside of Orleans, PJI has been filing stays on the application to put on hold any state district court decisions until the Supreme Court decides on retroactivity. For the most part, she said, judges around the state have been granting those stays. And aside from in New Orleans, she said, DA’s are also waiting on the Edwards decision before determining how to proceed with regards to the applications. 

For defendants who have not filed applications for post-conviction relief by tomorrow’s deadline, Johnson said that she was hopeful that DAs would waive the procedural objections and judges throughout the state and allow the cases to be heard. 

But she said she wasn’t counting on it.

“We are generally concerned that it is risky to not have filed by tomorrow,” she said. 

But Johnson said that while DA’s and judges could take part in remedying the consequences of non-unanimous jury verdicts, they were not ultimately to blame for the practice.

“I think historically very often with projects like this there is some sort of finger pointing at district attorneys,” Johnson said. “But this project and this issue is different, because it’s not the district attorney’s fault that we’ve had Jim Crow juries. It’s not the judges’ fault. It’s not the fault, really, of anyone except for a group of legislators in 1898.” 

Nick 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...