The Louisiana State Capitol. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

The House Committee on Judiciary at the Louisiana state legislature on Thursday heard over an hour of emotional testimony in support of a bill that would give new trials or a shot at parole to around 1,500 people serving prison sentences based on non-unanimous jury verdicts— arguing that the practice was the product of the Jim Crow era, intended to silence the votes of Black jurors and convict Black defendants, and that the state must address its lingering impacts.

Some proponents of the bill see it as an opportunity to bypass an upcoming United States Supreme Court ruling — in a case called Edwards v. Vannoy —  that will determine whether or not an earlier ruling that found non-unanimous jury verdicts unconstitutional should be applied retroactively to people who are still in prison and have exhausted their appeals. 

But after testimony, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randall Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace, voluntarily deferred the bill, saying that he would only move it forward if the court in fact makes that determination first. The bill would then act as a legislative mechanism that would ensure there is a pathway to get new trials or parole for those people still incarcerated, he said.

“This bill is to provide an instrument to the state in the event that the Supreme Court comes back with a favorable decision,” Gaines said. He said the decision by the Court would be “determinative of this particular issue.”

It is unclear whether the Supreme Court will even have made a decision in Edwards by the time the legislative session comes to a close. The legislative session ends on June 10, while the Supreme Court term runs until late June or early July. The Edwards case was argued in December, and Gaines said he was expecting a decision from the court “any day now.” 

Jamila Johnson, with Promise of Justice Initiative, a legal non-profit that is working to challenge non-unanimous jury convictions throughout Louisiana, told The Lens after the hearing that she wants the bill to move forward regardless of the Supreme Court decision, and that she was still hopeful it might.

“This bill should be passed regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision,” she said. “It remedies a wrong, and the US Supreme Court decision in Edwards is not definitive.”

Louisiana is one of two states, along with Oregon, that has previously allowed non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal trials. In 2018, voters in the state decided to change the constitution to mandate unanimous jury verdicts. But that change only applied to cases that had been initiated in 2019 or later. Then, last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that non-unanimous jury verdicts violate the United States Constitution — writing in their decision that the practice was “a pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans, especially in voting and jury service.” 

But that decision did not apply to hundreds of people still in Louisiana prisons who are still sitting incarcerated after being convicted by split-jury verdicts — 80 percent of whom are black, according to PJI. In December, the Court heard oral arguments in Edwards to determine whether or not it should be. 

A number of people who testified at the hearing on Thursday also implored the legislature to move forward with the legislation regardless of what the Supreme Court decides in Edwards — including former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson. 

“You are all familiar with Ramos,” Johnson said. “You know Edwards is pending. But let me say this: you are the legislature for the state of Louisiana. You decide on criminal procedural statutes, you decide what statutes are retroactive, and you can determine that in this instance.” 

When she was on the bench, Johnson argued in a dissent that the Louisiana Supreme Court should likewise view the United States Supreme Court’s opinion as retroactive, writing that the court was “free to provide our citizens with more than the minimum mandated by the [United States] Supreme Court.” 

The bill discussed on Thursday would change the code of criminal procedure to remove time limits to challenge the constitutionality of non-unanimous verdicts in post-conviction petitions. Given that the Supreme Court has ruled that those verdicts are in fact unconstitutional, the change would ostensibly mean those verdicts must be vacated if the petitions are ruled procedurally valid. It would also mandate parole hearings for anyone convicted based on a non-unanimous verdict. 

In New Orleans, District Attorney Jason Williams has already begun the process of reviewing and vacating finalized convictions based on non-unanimous jury verdicts out of Orleans Parish — of which there are over 300. Earlier this year he vacated the non-unanimous convictions of 22 defendants — most of whom went on to plead to lesser charges

One of those men who had their conviction vacated, Jermaine Hudson, was ready to take a plea deal in order to get out of prison, despite the fact that he maintained his innocence. Before he could do that, however, his accuser in the alleged armed robbery he was found guilty of came forward and said he made the whole story up. Hudson was exonerated in March.

At the hearing on Thursday, Hudson testified that he was likely not the only one who had been wrongfully convicted on a non-unanimous jury verdict who remained in prison following Ramos.

”I’m quite sure you have more guys, like myself, that are actually innocent,” he said. 

Another woman testified at the hearing that she was raped repeatedly as a young girl, and the man who did it was convicted to life in prison on a non-unanimous jury verdict. She said that in that instance, she knew the verdict and sentence were just, but she called the law that allowed non-unanimous verdicts “deplorable” and “steeped in Jim Crow era racism.” 

Even though the bill heard on Thursday would mean he could get a new trial — and potentially be released from prison — she said that she still felt it was a moral imperative to move forward with it. 

“The possibility of him getting out of prison absolutely paralyzes me and would be trading his life sentence for mine,” she said. “Regardless of that, I can’t in good conscience teach my sons that we support the rule of law only when it doesn’t potentially hurt us. In this case, it’s wrong and I implore you to change it.”

While Rep. Gaines was clear at the hearing that the bill would only move forward if the United States Supreme Court rules in Edwards that their Ramos decision should be applied retroactively, Jamila Johson with PJI said that they were pushing to get Gaines to go forward regardless. 

“We still have hope,” Johnson said after the hearing.  “And the conversations have been promising since the hearing that there could be a different decision, maybe, or a different path for the bill. So we’re still optimistic we’re going to be able to right this wrong.”

Other representatives on the Judiciary Committee also seemed determined to address the issue regardless of what the court decides in Edwards. Rep. Charles Owen, Republican of Rosepine, said he was determined to address the issue even if it meant coming in for a special session.

He also said he had talked to the DAs and judges in his district who were concerned about past non-unanimous verdicts clogging their court dockets. 

“But you know what,” he said, “if the state has to come up with money to create special courts, or to pay lawyers to do whatever we have to do, I don’t care if we have to sell GARVEE bonds or have bake sales.” 

“We as Americans have to confront things that are done that are wrong,” Owen said. “And this is awful. This is awful.”

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...