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

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled on Friday that around 1,500 people still serving time in prison on split-jury verdicts are not entitled to new trials, declining to retroactively apply a United States Supreme Court ruling that found non-unanimous convictions unconstitutional. 

In the opinion of the court, Justice Scott Crichton cited the amount of work it would take for courts to retry many of the cases, and the fact that voters of Louisiana only decided to ban split-jury verdicts going forward when they voted to end the practice in 2018.

“In making this decision, we are mindful of the strong reliance interests at stake and the high administrative burden that many retrials of final convictions would impose on our system of justice,” wrote Crichton. “We further note that in voting to amend the state Constitution to require unanimity in jury verdicts, the citizens of this state chose to do so with prospective effect only.”

(The Louisiana legislature was responsible for the wording of the ballot initiative that banned split-jury verdicts, which did not give voters the option to apply the ban retroactively.)

Justice Piper Griffin, the court’s only Black Justice, wrote the lone dissenting opinion that argued all non-unanimous convictions should be tossed out. 

“Intentional racism has no place in our criminal justice system,” Griffin wrote. “The racially discriminatory nature of convictions secured by non-unanimous verdicts does not change over time. Such convictions were racially discriminatory in 1898. They were racially discriminatory in 1975. They remain racially discriminatory today.”

Louisiana was just one of two states, along with Oregon, to allow for non-unanimous convictions in non-capital felony trials. When the law was first established during the Jim Crow era, a conviction in the state only required nine of 12 jurors to vote guilty. Later on, it was changed to 10 of 12. 

Advocates and legal scholars have argued that the law’s intention was part of a broader effort following the Civil War to disenfranchise Black citizens, and was specifically intended to silence the voices of Black jurors and convict more Black defendants. Available data has shown that the law did just that, and around 80 percent of people in prison on split-jury verdicts are Black, according to an analysis by the Promise of Justice Initiative.

Following Friday’s decision, attorney Jamila Johnson with Promise of Justice Initiative, who argued the case, said that the opinion was in line with a long legacy of racial discrimination in the Louisiana criminal legal system. 

“Jim Crow is alive and well in Louisiana,” Johnson said. “This is not just a loss for our clients. This is a loss for every Louisianian. Our courts must protect our fundamental rights and freedoms. Our clients never had a fair shake, and now the Louisiana Supreme Court has declared they never will.”

Voters in Louisiana overwhelmingly decided to ban the practice of split-jury verdicts in 2018, but only in cases moving forward. Then, in 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that split-jury verdicts were unconstitutional, overturning a previous 1972 decision. But that ruling only applied to individuals whose cases were still on direct appeal — not the hundreds of cases that had already been finalized years or decades earlier. In a separate decision the following year, Edwards v. Vannoy, the Court declined to apply their decision retroactively to those older cases.  

But they left open the possibility that individual states could decide on their own how to handle those cases, and attorneys quickly filed hundreds of petitions in Louisiana state courts asking to have split-jury convictions tossed out. The case that was finally taken up by the Supreme Court was that of Reginald Reddick, a Black man who was convicted by a 10-2 jury of a 1997 murder in Plaquemines Parish. 

Lawyers with Louisiana Attorney General’s office opposed Reddick’s petition for a new trial, arguing that it would be too burdensome to retry so many old cases like his, and that the racist origins of the law had been “cleansed” during a 1973 state constitutional convention when the issue was again taken up by lawmakers. 

One justice, James T. Genovese, wrote on Friday that he agreed with the majority opinion that new trials should not be granted to everyone who was convicted on a split-jury verdict, but said that in the cases where a Black defendant could prove that at least one Black juror voted not to convict they should have their conviction tossed out.

“I do find that defendants convicted by a non-unanimous jury verdict tainted by racial animus are certainly entitled to relief, regardless of the date of their conviction,” Genovese wrote. “In my view, racial animus is present when the jury vote of an African American is disenfranchised and discounted, which occurs when a jury can reach a verdict without said African American vote under the prior nonunanimous verdict rule of law.”

Friday’s decision likely foreclosed any possibility that individuals in prison on split-jury verdicts will be granted new trials by the court system. But advocates will continue with their efforts at the Louisiana State Legislature to have a law passed that would do the same thing. 

“This decision will be remembered as a grave misstep in Louisiana history,” Johnson said. “Next year, Louisiana legislators will again confront this injustice. We hope the legislature will act to ensure retroactivity and a remedy for the hundreds who remain in prison based on this Jim Crow law.”

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...