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

On Thursday — the final day of the Louisiana legislative session — the state House of Representatives voted to create a task force to study the issue of providing relief for people who remain in prison on non-unanimous jury verdicts.

The “Equal Justice Task Force,” according to the resolution establishing it, is tasked with “formulating a method to enable the judicial system of Louisiana and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to ensure the equal application of laws as such laws relate to individuals who may have been subjected to a miscarriage of justice due to the non-unanimous jury verdict law in Louisiana.” 

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randal Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace, said that he hoped the creation of the task force would result in a uniform procedure for determining which of the non-unanimous jury verdicts may have resulted in wrongful convictions based on the evidence, and providing relief for just those cases. 

The resolution to create the task force passed the House by a vote of 86-13.

Earlier in the session, Gaines brought a bill that aimed to give new trials or a shot at parole for the over 1,500 people who are still in prison after being convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts. That bill was killed last month in the House Judiciary Committee.

But while that bill was intended to provide relief to anyone still in prison on a non-unanimous jury verdict, Gaines said that he hopes the task force will be able to find ways to identify the cases of non-unanimous jury verdicts where someone has strong evidence that they may have been wrongfully convicted — beyond the fact that their verdict was non-unanimous.

Gaines said that the “unintended consequence” of people who are actually guilty receiving new trials or a shot at parole just because they were convicted by a split-jury verdict — particularly given the difficulty of retrying old cases where evidence and witnesses may no longer be accessible — was one of the reasons his bill faced firm opposition from the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

“The fact that they were convicted by a non-unanimous jury verdict does not conclusively establish that they were wrongfully convicted, or that they were not guilty,” Gaines told The Lens on Friday. 

Gaines said that cases where the evidence may have been “extremely weak” or where there were clear instances of racial discrimination were the cases that should be elligible for new trials. 

“We have to look at all the facts in toto, not just the aspect that it was a non-unanimous jury conviction,” he said. 

With the creation of the task force, he said he hopes that the LDAA will come up with a uniform procedure for district attorneys throughout the state to review all non-unanimous jury convictions out of their jurisdictions, and determine which ones were potential wrongful convictions. 

Gaines said that the task force could be in a position to review those procedures and advise the LDAA on how reviews should be conducted. 

“It allows the task force to have oversight over that and be able to address that process — or at least have the opportunity to review that the process is being done in a way that the means of justice is being served,” Gaines said.  

Loren Lampert, executive director of the LDAA, was unable to be immediately reached for comment. 

In New Orleans, DA Jason Williams has begun the process of vacating all non-unanimous jury convictions within his jurisdiction, saying that any conviction based on the state’s old non-unanimous jury law is fundamentally invalid. And advocates have argued that the fact of a non-unanimous conviction in itself is enough to prove that it was based on racist procedure, and the fact that there was at least one juror who dissented means that the evidence was not strong enough to warrant a conviction.

Louisiana is only one of two states, along with Oregon, that has allowed non-unanimous jury convictions. The practice was established in the 19th century during the decades following Reconstruction, and convictions based on the votes of just nine of 12 jurors were enshrined in the Louisiana Constitution during a 1898 constitutional convention. (The law was changed to require ten jurors to vote to convict in the 1970s.) Advocates and legal scholars have argued that the non-unanimous jury law was an example of Jim Crow legislation seeking to oppress Black people — in this case, by making it easier to nullify the votes of Black jurors and convict Black defendants.

Following a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Advocate that found Black jurors were more likely to be dissenting votes in non-unanimous convictions and that Black defendants were more likely to be convicted by non-unanimous verdicts, voters in the state changed the law to require jury verdicts to be reached unanimously in cases initiated on Jan. 1, 2019 or later. Then, last year, in a case called Ramos v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court ruled that split-jury verdicts were unconstitutional. That decision meant anyone who had been convicted under a non-unanimous verdict and had not exhausted their appeals were eligible to get a new trial.

But in another decision last month, the Supreme Court ruled that its decision in Ramos did not apply to people still in prison on non-unanimous convictions who had already exhausted their appeals. However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who delivered the majority opinion, wrote that states were still free, through legislation or the courts, to apply the jury unanimity rule to those cases as well. 

Advocates took their case to the legislature, arguing that regardless of what the Supreme Court ruled, people should not be forced to remain in prison with no recourse if their convictions were based on an unconstitutional and racist law. 

While those efforts came up short, the Promise of Justice Initiative, a legal non-profit organization representing over 1,000 of those people who are in prison on non-unanimous convictions, said that the creation of the task force was a step in the right direction. 

“With the creation of the Equal Justice Task Force, Louisiana can continue to root out Jim Crow in our laws and take a critical step toward restoring justice to the more than 1,500 men and women who are serving time in prison due to unconstitutional Jim Crow jury verdicts,” said Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for PJI’s Jim Crow Juries Project, in a Friday press release. “We look forward to serving on the task force while continuing to work with state and local officials to restore justice and continue the process of healing from a systemically racist practice that has devastated Louisiana families and communities for generations.”

The task force will consist of seven state representatives, and individuals representing the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, the Louisiana Public Defender Board, the probation and parole division of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and the advocacy organizations Promise of Justice Initiative, Voice of the Experience, and Voices of Innocent Citizens Empowered, Incorporated. 

Gaines said the group will have its first meeting in October.

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...