On Thursday, the House Committee on the Judiciary voted down a bill that would have given new trials or a shot at parole to 1,500 people in prison on non-unanimous jury verdicts. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

After nearly an hour of testimony in support — and none in opposition — a bill that aimed to give new trials to 1,500 people who are serving prison sentences based on non-unanimous jury verdicts was killed in a committee hearing at the Louisiana legislature on Thursday morning.  

The vote took place in the House Committee on the Judiciary, and was 7-5 in opposition along party lines, with all the Democratic members voting in favor and present Republicans voting against. 

The bill, which was brought by Rep. Randal Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace, would have changed rules of post-conviction criminal procedure in order to allow people who were convicted on split jury verdicts a shot at a new trial or parole. There are over 1,500 of those individuals across the state. Eighty percent of them are Black. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The Advocate in 2018 — prior to a statewide vote repealing the state’s non-unanimous jury law — found that Black defendants were more likely to be convicted by split jury votes than white defendants. 

On Thursday morning, lawyers, activists, victims advocates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and loved ones of those still in prison on non-unanimous verdicts testified in front of the committee, urging them to pass the bill.

No one showed up to oppose the bill in person, and none of the members who ultimately voted against it articulated their reasons for doing so during the hearing.

“This was yet another indication that the state of Louisiana’s lawmakers are out of touch with the people of Louisiana,” said Jamila Johnson, an attorney with Promise of Justice Initiative, an organization representing individuals convicted on non-unanimous verdicts, after the vote. “Despite hearing testimony of those exonerated, and loved ones, they still decided that their loyalty to Louisiana District Attorneys Association was greater than their empathy and care for righting a historical wrong.” 

Loren Lampert of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, along with Bo Duhé, District Attorney for the 16th Judicial District, submitted cards in opposition to the bill, but did not appear to testify. 

Louisiana was one of two states, along with Oregon, that allowed for non-unanimous jury verdicts. But in 2018, voters in the state approved a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury decisions. And last year, in a case called Ramos v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court ruled split jury verdicts were unconstitutional. 

The practice dated back over a century, and was codified in the Louisiana constitution in 1898 during a constitutional convention that implemented Jim Crow measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests for voting — aimed to limit representation of black people.  Scholars, advocates, and the United States Supreme Court have argued that non-unanimous jury verdicts were one such measure — specifically designed to nullify the votes of Black jurors and convict Black defendants. 

But the 2018 amendment only applied to cases that had been initiated in 2019 or later. And when the Supreme Court ruled last year that the practice was unconstitutional, it only applied to cases that were still on direct appeal.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled on another case, Edwards v. Vannoy.  The 6-3 decision found that the Ramos ruling should not require people still in prison on non-unanimous verdicts who have exhausted their appeals to get new trials.  But still, the court noted that individual states had the right to handle those cases as they saw fit. The bill on Thursday aimed to do what the Supreme Court declined to do. 

The main opposition for the bill came from the District Attorneys Association, which said that vacating the convictions of people who had non-unanimous verdicts would be too burdensome for DA’s offices throughout the state, and that it would be retraumatizing to the victims. 

At the committee meeting on Thursday, proponents of the bill pointed toward the racist origins of non-unanimous jury verdicts, the fact that they were more likely to result in wrongful convictions, and the fact that failing to address the issue head on would leave victims with greater uncertainty. 

“The LDAA claiming to speak for victims, but then standing in the way of any real timeline or notice is very frustrating,” said Katie Hunter-Lowery of Louisiana Survivors for Reform, a coalition of crime survivors and families of homicide victims affiliated with Promise of Justice Initiative,  after the vote.  

Rep. Gaines said that he thought the fact that they didn’t show up indicated that they knew they were on the wrong side 

“I think they didn’t want to go on record as opposing a bill that they know is idealistic and just, but difficult in implementation,” he said. 

‘We know there are mistakes that were made’ 

The bill was heard once before in the Judiciary Committee, but was voluntarily deferred by Rep. Gaines pending  the Court’s decision in Edwards. During that committee meeting, some members who ultimately voted against it on Thursday, appeared to be in support of the bill.

“I don’t care if we have to sell GARVEE bonds or have bake sales. If there are people in jail that don’t need to be in jail, it’s got to be identified and we as a state have to sort this out,” Rep. Charles Owen said during the previous hearing. “The God that I know says that he hates uneven scales, and that’s what I’m operating on.”

But on Thursday, Owen remained quiet throughout the testimony, and ultimately voted against the bill.

Connie Herman, a woman who has a loved one that has been incarcerated for over 24 years on a non-unanimous jury verdict and maintains his innocence, told The Lens in a phone call after the vote that Rep. Owen’s vote against the bill was particularly devastating to her. 

“This is just a reminder that a man will say anything, but once it comes to a test, he will turn his back on what is right for the sake of politics and money,” she said.

When asked about his apparent change of heart after the vote, Rep. Owen told The Lens that he “could not move forward unless I heard from the DAs, from the sheriff’s, and from the judges, and we were all in the same room.”

Asked why the DAs didn’t show up at the meeting, Owen said he was disappointed in their decision. 

“I mean, I’m bothered by that,” he said. “I’m very bothered by that.”

Owen said he was “grieved” by the issue, and said that he was working on an “alternate solution that I’m working on that I am going to try to push and try to push in this session,” which would not be in the form of a law, but a resolution.

“We know there are mistakes that were made,” Owen said. 

Rep. Gaines said that even if a resolution passed, it wouldn’t be binding, and would not guarantee justice for the 1,500 people in prison.

“I mean, justice should never be discretionary, it should be mandatory,” Gaines said. “So anything that’s not a bill would be discretionary.” 

Jamila Johnson, with PJI, said that her organization would continue to litigate the over 1,000 post-conviction relief applications that they have filed on behalf of individuals with non-unanimous jury verdicts. And she said that they would be back next year to try and get the bill passed.

Meanwhile, district attorneys throughout the state have the discretion to independently review cases out of their districts with non-unanimous verdicts, as Jason Williams in Orleans Parish is currently doing. 

“We will be back again next year,” Johnson said.  “And we will be doing advocacy and everything we can in the state, because the Edwards decision was not dispositive. And there are still live issues. The district attorneys in these districts have avoided us for too long.”

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...