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

On Tuesday, dozens of letters were delivered to members of the Louisiana House of Representatives from family and loved ones of those still in prison on non-unanimous jury convictions. In one, a woman pointed to the case of Brandon Jackson, who she said had been locked up for 25 years “on a 10-2 Jim Crow jury decision for a crime he did not commit.” 

Now, she said, it was time for him to come home. 

“His mother just had major heart surgery at 74 and we don’t know how much time she has left,” she wrote. “His mother needs to see her son walk through her door a free man and that would make her the happiest woman in the world.” 

Many similarly claimed their loved ones are innocent, and deserve to be home. Another woman lamented the fact that her father-in-law “has never had the opportunity to spend time with his grandchildren outside of a prison due to Jim Crow laws.” 

For more than 100 years, Louisiana criminal defendants could be sent to prison with as many as two of 12 jurors voting to convict. The practice was codified in the state constitution, dating from the state’s 1898 constitutional convention which was held explicitly to undo Reconstruction-era reforms and “establish the supremacy of the white race.” Many legal scholars believe that in allowing split jury decisions, delegates rewriting the state constitution intended to nullify the votes of newly enfranchised Black jurors and make it easier to convict Black defendants. In 2018, Louisiana residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment eliminating non-unanimous juries. But that vote did not undo convictions that had already been secured.

The United States Supreme Court last year in Ramos v. Louisiana agreed with the assessment that the non-unanimous jury law that previously existed in Louisiana was fundamentally racist, calling it “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 applied only to people who were still in the appeals process.  

Last week, in another Louisiana case, Edwards v. Vannoy, the court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Ramos decision should not be applied retroactively to people who are still in prison on split-jury verdicts and have exhausted their appeals, such as Jackson. 

There are around 1,500 of those individuals throughout Louisiana. Eighty percent of them are Black. 

For those people, the best chance at getting a new trial likely comes in the form of a bill put forward by Rep. Randal Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace. If passed, the bill would make it easier for anyone convicted by a non-unanimous jury to be released on parole or seek new trials.

The bill was heard in committee earlier this month, but was put on hold pending the Supreme Court decision in Edwards.

It was initially unclear whether Gaines would move the bill forward when the court chose not to apply its previous decision retroactively.  But now, with the decision in, Gaines said that he “remains undeterred.”

The bill will be given a new hearing on Thursday.  The letters sent to the House members urged its passage.

The bill faces opposition from the influential Louisiana District Attorneys Association, who have said that they have concerns regarding the burden it would place on DA’s offices around the state who would have to review and potentially retry old cases. They also say that it would be too much to ask of victims to participate in a new trial for those individuals.

But supporters of the bill say that it is both viable and the right thing to do.

“I mean, if these people were convicted under an unconstitutional and racist law, they should be retried fairly,” said Rep. Mandie Landry, Democrat of New Orleans, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and plans to vote in favor of the bill on Thursday. 

Jamila Johnson is an attorney with Promise of Justice Initiative, a legal non-profit that has been representing individuals with non-unanimous jury verdicts. She has been working at the legislature to get the bill passed —  but said it’s still uncertain whether or not it will make it out of committee on Thursday. 

“At this moment, I can’t say with certainty whether we have the votes,” said. “There have been times in the last two weeks where we have had the votes and then times where we have not had the votes. And that has gone back and forth, for two weeks. And at some point in time, we have to tell the people of Louisiana where we are on this.”

Gaines said that after the Supreme Court decision in Edwards, the urgency around his bill has increased — particularly for those in prison and their loved ones. 

“The cry became louder, demand became greater, because it was the only hope that they may have,” Gaines said.  

Parole or retrial

Gaines’ bill would give people still in prison on split-jury verdicts two options for seeking relief: a new trial, or a shot at parole. 

“This bill says that someone can raise that their conviction was unconstitutional today — despite when that conviction happened — and could do so until April of 2023,” Johnson said. 

Given the fact that the Supreme Court ruled non-unanimous juries unconstitutional in Ramos, by changing the procedural time frame for when someone can make a constitutional claim, it would effectively mean that everyone with non-unanimous verdicts would be entitled to a new trial.

Alternatively, she said, the bill gives a shot at parole for defendants who may not already be entitled to it.

“If somebody does not want to go through the process of a new trial, but instead finds it more beneficial to them and their situation, to have an opportunity to go before a board of trained professionals, and seek parole, that that can be an option that is available to them,” Johnson said.

In an interview last week, Louisiana District Attorneys Association Director Loren Lampert said that his organization was opposing the legislation “in as much as it’s just an undoable task right now, as everything is structured.”

Lampert pointed specifically to the concerns of victims as a major roadblock, noting that most of the crimes were “serious felonies.”

“But we’re always open to discussion and trying to resolve what we see are huge obstacles — primarily the victim aspect,” Lampert said. “You can understand the lift in addressing the concerns — by all accounts legitimate concerns — of victims and survivors. We haven’t made a lot of progress in that arena.”  

When asked whether there was a compromise he could think of with regards to navigating “the victim aspect” Lampert said, “No, not in short order.” 

“But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying,” he said. 

Gaines said that he has suggested amendments to the bill that would allow more time for DAs to resolve old non-unanimous jury convictions and to secure more funding to dedicate specifically to those cases.

But he said they have not been compelling to the DA’s association.

“Those weren’t convincing to them,” he said. “I expect it to be very challenging to get it out of committee.” 

If the bill doesn’t pass, individual district attorneys throughout the state still have the ability to independently review and vacate non-unanimous jury convictions that have come out of their districts. Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams has begun that process, and in February he vacated 22 convictions obtained by split-jury verdicts. Most of those individuals took plea deals to lesser charges, and many of them were released from prison

Williams has said he only believes one of the vacated convictions will be retried, and has offered up his plan to the rest of the DAs around the state so they can emulate it. 

“I don’t think that challenges and difficulties should stop us from doing the right thing,” Gaines said.

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...