Attorneys Jamila Johnson and Hardell Ward, with Promise of Justice Initiative, who are representing Reginald Reddick in his case in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Johnson presented oral arguments in the case which could determine the fate of hundreds in prison on non-unanimous jury convictions. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday heard oral arguments in a case that could determine the fate of hundreds of prisoners throughout the state who are locked up on non-unanimous jury verdicts, which were legal in the state until 2019 and ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year.  

Lawyers for Reginald Reddick, who was convicted by a split-jury in 1997 for a murder in Plaquemines Parish and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, say that his verdict was based on an unconstitutional and historically racist law, and that he, along with more than 1,000 other people in his position, are entitled to new trials. 

“I think that we have up to 1,500 people who don’t have a constitutional verdict one way or another,” Jamila Johnson, a lawyer with the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is representing Reddick, told the justices during Tuesday’s arguments. “Their innocence or guilt has not been established.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has opposed Reddick and other prisoners’ petitions for new trials based on their split-jury convictions, arguing that split-jury verdicts weren’t fundamentally unfair. Attorney’s with his office claim that being forced to retry hundreds of cases would be too burdensome for prosecutors across the state.

Shae McPhee, of the Attorney General’s Office, argued on Tuesday that the Louisiana had determined as much in previous cases. 

“Given the states limited resources, to tie them up and allow defendants to relitigate endlessly their claims, when you have defendants languishing in prison waiting for trial in the first place, just wasn’t a good use of resources,” he said.

Justice Piper Griffin — the court’s only female justice, and only Black justice — questioned that reasoning. 

“You’re suggesting that the state’s interest in finality is more important than an individual’s constitutional rights?”Griffin asked.

McPhee responded that the court needed to consider that at the time Reddick was convicted, split-jury verdicts were legal. 

“At the time, Mr. Reddick, he was given a trial and his due process that was due under the constitution at the time,” McPhee said. “And to allow him to continually relitigate the same issue eats up the resources of the state.”

But Johnson said that split-jury verdicts — which were codified in state law at the dawn of the Jim Crow era — should never have been considered constitutional in the first place, and were the product of a racist backlash following Reconstruction that sought to silence the voices of Black jurors and convict more Black defendants

“Louisianians didn’t get the same rights under the sixth amendment that they did in the rest of the country,” Johnson said. “Why were Louisinans deprived of their constitutional rights? The reason was because of a Jim Crow law.”

State courts among last options for prisoners

For over a century, Louisiana allowed for non-unanimous jury verdicts in non-capital felony trials. It was one of only two states in the country, along with Oregon, to do so. The practice dated back to the late 1800s, and was put into the state constitution during a 1898 constitutional convention. That convention was also responsible for several laws that were designed to prevent newly enfranchised Black people in the state from exercising their right to vote,  with one delegate claiming that the convention’s purpose was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.”

The issue was raised again in 1973 constitutional convention, during which delegates changed the law to allow for 10-2 verdicts, but not 9-3, as was previously allowed. 

In 2018, voters across the state overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous verdicts in jury trials. That took effect only for cases initiated on Jan. 1, 2019 or later. 

Then, in 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a case called Ramos v. Louisiana that non-unanimous jury verdicts are unconstitutional. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the split-jury verdict law “one pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African-Americans, especially in voting and jury service.”

While the Ramos decision mandated new trials for people with split-jury verdicts who were still in the regular state appeal process, it did not apply to cases, like Reddick’s, where defendants had exhausted their appeals. The court quickly took up another case — Edwards v. Vannoy — to address the question of full retroactivity for the Ramos ruling. But a majority ultimately determined that they would not apply Ramos to those cases. Advocates estimate that there are about 1,500 people with finalized split-jury verdicts who are still locked up, and 80 percent of them are Black.

Still the ruling left room for those defendants to seek relief in state courts, a process that had already begun.

After the Ramos decision, hundreds of people convicted by split juries in the state filed petitions in district courts asking for new trials based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that split-jury verdicts were unconstitutional. 

Despite the ruling in Edwards, they have maintained hope that the state court system will do what the federal courts did not — rule that Ramos should be applied retroactively. 

In Reddick’s case, a district judge in Plaquemines Parish did just that, finding that despite the US Supreme Court finding to the contrary, Ramos should be considered a “watershed” rule of criminal procedure that impacted the “fundamental fairness” of trials — and thus applied retroactively. The appeals court upheld that ruling. 

Attorneys for the Louisiana Department of Justice  petitioned  the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn those decisions, urging them to “follow the United States Supreme Court’s example in Edwards” in determining that Ramos was not a watershed and that “no new rule of criminal procedure will ever apply retroactively on state collateral review.”

But lawyers for Reddick argue that Ramos was in fact a watershed rule of criminal procedure, and that the state Supreme Court could depart from the parameters mandated by the United States Supreme Court.  But even if the state justices determine that it is not watershed, Reddick’s lawyers argue the standard for retroactivity should be changed so that it would include any new rule that “impacts the guilt or innocence phase of a proceeding and has emerged from a Jim Crow law.”

“If the test Louisiana currently uses can be interpreted to leave hundreds of predominantly Black men in prison on the basis of a Jim Crow law without an opportunity for a constitutional trial, then the test is morally indefensible,” they wrote. 

State argues that law was ‘cleansed’ in 1973 convention

The split jury law in Louisiana survived a second constitutional convention, in 1973. On Tuesday, the justices questioned whether the re-adoption of the law (in a modified form, requiring 10 jurors to be in agreement rather than the previous nine) “cleansed” it of its original racist intent. 

McPhee, arguing for the state, said that while the state had never admitted that split-jury verdicts were prompted by racial animus in the first place, the 1973 convention fully removed any potential racist intent. 

“If a state repasses a law that is facially neutral, without racial animus, then of course you can clean the legislation from being tainted,” McPhee said.

But Johnson said that the 1898 convention had put the state on a path that was inherently racially biased. 

Justices also questioned Johnson about the racial makeup of Reddick’s jury and if the law could still be considered to have a racial impact regardless of the race of the defendant, or the jurors. 

Reddick is Black, but Johnson said that PJI attorneys have been unable to get the records to determine the racial makeup of the jury. 

Justice John Weimer asked if the argument that the law had racist origins would still apply if a white defendant, whose crime was allegedly against a white victim, with an all-white jury were convicted by a 10-2 or 11-1 vote. 

“At the end of the day all Louisianans, regardless of race, suffered,” due to split-jury verdicts, Johnson replied. 

‘Are you suggesting we wait for the legislature to act?’

McPhee said that voters already determined in 2018 to require unanimity going forward, but not to apply it to cases like Reddick’s. (The state legislature determined the wording that would appear in the 2018 constitutional amendment proposition. The ballot did not offer a retroactivity option.) If any action is going to be taken with regards to those cases, he argued, it should be done by local politicians and voters — not the court. 

He noted that the legislature recently moved a bill out of committee that addresses past non-unanimous verdicts. That bill by Rep. Randall Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace, would set up a special panel to consider parole for people convicted on split verdicts. 

“Are you suggesting we wait for the legislature to act?” Weimer asked.

“I think they already are,” said McPhee. 

But advocates argue that Gaines’ proposal, which would have the panel first determine if the split-jury verdict resulted in a “miscarriage of justice” before determining relief, argued that the proposal doesn’t go far enough. Anyone with a non-unanimous verdict, they argue, should be entitled a new trial. 

And Johnson pointed out that the bill still needed to go through a long legislative process before it even became law — for which there is no guarantee. 

“There is a reason why we don’t make decisions in this court based on pending legislation,” Johnson said.  “Currently, there is no remedy for Mr. Reddick.”

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...