The Louisiana Supreme Court. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to reconsider the 25-year-old murder conviction of Reginald Reddick, a case that could determine whether about 1,500 people still in prison based on non-unanimous jury convictions throughout the state are entitled to new trials.

Louisiana was one of two states in the country, along with Oregon, that allowed defendants to be found guilty in felony trials even if one or two members of their jury voted not to convict. The procedure was enshrined in the Louisiana constitution during a Jim Crow-era constitutional convention. But the practice was banned in 2019 when voters in the state made unanimous jury verdicts required going forward. And in 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

But that ruling only applied to cases still on direct appeal, and in a subsequent ruling, the court ruled that they would not require new trials for people with older non-unanimous verdict convictions who had exhausted those appeals.  In their decision, however, the federal court said that states could independently grant new trials to those individuals if they chose to do so. 

Advocates representing people still in prison on non-unanimous verdicts have been pushing the state courts to do just that, filing hundreds of petitions for post-conviction relief based on non-unanimous jury verdicts. For the most part, those cases have been stalled, pending a ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

Last November, advocates gained hope that the state’s highest court would weigh in sooner rather than later, when two separate Louisiana court of appeals issued divergent rulings on whether or not people with non-unanimous convictions should be entitled to new trials.  

Now, with its decision on Tuesday to take up the issue, a ruling is imminent. 

In 1997, Reddick was convicted of second-degree murder for the 1993 killing of Al Moliere in Plaquemines Parish. The verdict was 10-2 to convict, a legal conviction at the time. (Reddick had previously been convicted of first-degree murder in the case, but the verdict was overturned in 1996.) Reddick, who is Black, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and is currently in custody at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

Last year, Reddick filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the 25th Judicial District Court based on the 2020 United State Supreme Court ruling, in Ramos v. Louisiana, that non-unanimous jury verdicts are unconstitutional. 

In August, a Plaquemines Parish judge ruled in Reddick’s favor, finding that the Ramos decision was a “watershed” rule of criminal procedure, and therefore must be applied retroactively. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld that ruling. In doing so, they did not issue a written opinion. 

But in November, in the case of Julio Melendez, the Fourth Circuit did issue a written opinion that said that a non-unanimous conviction entitled Melendez to a new trial. 

“Considering the historically racist motivations behind the adoption of the non-unanimous jury verdict practice, this Court finds the practice, from its inception, was not steeped in fairness,” Judge Regina Bartholomew-Woods wrote in the Melendez opinion.

Lawyers with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office appealed the Fourth Circuit Decision in Reddick’s case to the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that the district court was wrong when it determined that the Ramos ruling constituted a “watershed” rule of criminal procedure. 

Case law has established that a “watershed” rule must implicate “the fundamental

fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.” The United States Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Louisiana, however, that Ramos was not a watershed decision, meaning that, under federal law, the Ramos decision would not be extended to older cases. Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh went even further, arguing that the watershed exception was “moribund” and that no new procedural rule could meet its standard. 

“No new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the watershed exception,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Reddick is being represented by the Promise of Justice Initiative, a legal non-profit which has filed petitions for over 1,000 people in prison on split-jury verdicts. 

The non-unanimous jury law was enshrined in the Louisiana constitution during a 1898 constitutional convention that established a number of Jim Crow era practices meant to curtail the democratic representation of Black citizens in the state — such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Criminal justice reform advocates argue that the split-jury law was part of that effort as a way to ensure that in the event that Black citizens ended up on a jury, their votes could be nullified. Under the law, the state was also able to convict more Black defendants — and in turn create a larger labor force for the state’s convict-leasing system. 

In his concurring opinion in Ramos, Kavanaugh agreed, writing that the non-unanimous jury law was “one pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans.” 

But the law stayed on the books long after other Jim Crow era measures had been repealed, and the disparate racial impacts continued as well. A Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation by The Advocate in 2018 found that Black defendants are more likely to be convicted by a non-unanimous verdict than their white counterparts. The Promise of Justice Initiative estimates that 80 percent of people still in prison on non-unanimous verdicts are Black.

Landry and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, which represents the state’s prosecutors, argue that granting new trials for everyone locked up with a split-jury verdict isn’t feasible, due to the difficulties in trying cases that are in some instances decades old.

In a letter late last year to a legislative task force that is studying the issue, the LDAA wrote that “wholesale vacating of the convictions of these serious offenses will unequivocally result in the forced release of multiple violent and sex offenders with no ability to re-try these cases.”

Attorneys for both Reddick and the state must file their briefs by the beginning of April.

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...