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

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear oral arguments in a 25-year-old murder case that could determine whether hundreds of people still locked up in Louisiana prisons on non-unanimous jury verdicts — two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that split verdicts are unconstitutional — are entitled to a new trial. 

Earlier this year, the court announced that it would take up the case of Reginald Reddick, who was convicted by a 10-2 jury verdict in 1997 for killing Al Moliere in Plaquemines Parish. Reddick was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Reddick is one of more than 1,000 Louisiana prisoners still locked up on split-jury verdicts — which were legal in the state until 2019 — to file a post-conviction relief application after the 2020 United States Supreme Court Decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, declaring non-unanimous jury verdicts unconstitutional

In August, a district court granted Reddick’s application for a new trial based on his non-unanimous conviction, and an appeals court upheld that decision. Lawyers with Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office appealed that ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

Reddick’s case is one of the few remaining hopes for people in prison on split-jury verdicts who are hoping to have their convictions tossed. 

“This is the day that hundreds of Louisianans have been waiting for,” said Jamila Johnson, an attorney with the Promise of Justice initiative, who will be arguing on behalf of Reddick on Tuesday. “So many people have been waiting for the Louisiana Supreme Court to look at this issue.”

Louisiana was one of only two states, along with Oregon, to allow for split-jury verdicts in felony trials. Initially part of statutory law dating back to the 1880s, the practice was enshrined in the state constitution during a 1898 constitutional convention that established many Jim Crow era measures to limit the rights of Black citizens, such as a poll-tax and literacy test that curtailed voting rights. Historians and legal scholars argue that the split-jury law was attempting to do something similar in the criminal justice realm —  silence the votes of Black jurors in order to convict more Black defendants.

Initially, the split-jury law mandated that only nine out of 12 jurors were required to vote to convict for a guilty verdict to be reached. (When the state constitution was rewritten in the 1970s, the requirement was increased to at least ten jurors.) 

In 2018, voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous juries in cases initiated in 2019 or later, maintaining the legal validity of all past split-jury cases. The Ramos decision, which came the following year, expanded on that, striking down split verdicts for defendants who were convicted but had not yet exhausted the normal state appeals process. That still left more than 1,000 prisoners with finalized split-jury convictions behind bars. 

Many of them tried to use the Ramos decision as a basis for post-conviction relief applications in Louisiana state courts. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court taking up another split-jury case, one where the defendant did not fall under the scope of the Ramos decision.

But their hopes for relief from Washington were dashed last year when the United States Supreme Court ruled on the case — Edwards v. Vannoy — holding that the Ramos decision would not be expanded retroactively

The court did, however, note that “states remain free, if they choose, to retroactively apply the jury-unanimity rule as a matter of state law in post conviction proceedings.” 

Following the Edwards decision, courts around the state have handled split-jury verdicts in different ways, but for the most part have been waiting for the Louisiana Supreme court to make a final determination.  

In their petition to the Louisiana Supreme Court, lawyers for Reddick, who is Black, said the case rivals in significance the landmark civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court found racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional — “or, if handled differently, the shameful Plessy v. Ferguson,” an earlier case that upheld the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation. 

Reddick’s lawyers argue that not only did the split-jury law have racist origins and disproportionately affected Black defendants, but it also undermined the integrity of convictions. They claim that Reddick was innocent, and pointed to a lack of physical or DNA evidence tying him to the crime. 

“Two jurors did not believe the State met its burden of proof to convict Mr. Reddick,” they wrote. “Due to Louisina’s Jim Crow jury law, Mr. Reddick was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.” 

Lawyers for Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, however, argue that applying Ramos retroactively “could overwhelm the justice system,” by forcing prosecutors to retry hundreds of cases — some decades old. 

“Beyond the incredible financial burden that flooding the criminal system with retrials would impose, important practical problems would impede the State’s efforts to obtain justice for victims,” they wrote in their brief. “Reddick murdered Moliere nearly thirty years ago. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to reassemble the witnesses and evidence to retry him all these decades later.”

A ‘more palatable plan’  

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Legislature is taking up a bill on old split-jury cases. On Thursday, a state House committee approved House Bill 744, which would set up a special panel to review cases of people with split-jury verdicts and possibly grant them parole — even if their original sentence did not allow for parole. While the measure could allow a path towards release for some individuals in prison on split-jury verdicts, a number of advocates for prisoners opposed the measure, arguing that it was too limited and that any convictions with split-jury verdicts should be vacated.

The bill, brought by Rep. Randall Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace, would create a committee  consisting of three retired judges, a retired public defender, and a retired district attorney — all appointed by the governor. If the bill passes the legislature and is signed into law, people in prison with non-unanimous jury verdicts could then petition the committee, which would review their cases “to determine whether the petitioner was convicted of an offense by a non-unanimous jury, and, if so, then whether that conviction resulted in a miscarriage of justice.”

When considering whether or not there was a “miscarriage of justice,” the committee can look at things like the evidence used to convict someone, the length of jury deliberations, whether or not the dissenting jurors were actually voting to acquit, and “any indicia of racial animus in the prosecution of the petitioner’s case,” among other things. 

Initially, the bill would have allowed the committee to grant an individual parole with a vote of three of the five members. But the Louisiana District Attorneys Association took issue with that, and added an amendment that required a unanimous vote. Rep. Gaines opposed the amendment, saying it was “ironic” that there would be a unanimity requirement to potentially provide relief for people in prison for the non-unanimous verdicts. But it ultimately passed and was added to the bill.

Rep. Charles Owen, Republican of Rosepine, co-authored the bill. At a hearing last year, Owen expressed deep concern regarding the fact that people were still in prison on split-jury verdicts, calling it “awful.” But when it ultimately came time to vote on a measure (also brought by Rep. Gaines) that would have entitled those individuals to new trials, Owen voted against it

Explaining his decision on Thursday, Owen said that at the time of the vote last year he had already been discussing with Gaines working between sessions to come up with an alternative mechanism to address split jury cases. He called the special parole board a “more palatable plan.” 

But the bill was not palatable for a number of advocates with Voice of the Experienced, a New Orleans based criminal justice reform group. Members of the organization said people should have their convictions vacated — not just given an opportunity for parole. 

“The litmus test is the miscarriage of justice — well, the miscarriage of justice is the non-unanimous jury verdict,” said VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson, who himself was convicted on a non-unanimous verdict. “This is about a conviction that was found to be unconstitutional. We don’t remedy that by putting people on parole.”

Will Harrell, also with VOTE, said he was worried that action by the legislature might influence the Louisiana Supreme Court’s course of action ahead of the oral arguments. 

“We are deeply concerned that an action by this committee could lead that court to abstain from making any determination by reference to the fact that the legislature is acting,” Harrell said. “My fear is that they may say the court need not act on this, the legislature is in the process of a solution. We don’t see this as a solution.”

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...