Jury trials are back up and running at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court this week after a six-week long hiatus following the revelation that some people with past felony convictions were being excluded from serving on juries in violation of state law for over a year and a half.
The current jury pool received summonses sent out last month with updated language that reflects the previously neglected law change, but defense attorneys and advocates say there are still open questions regarding whether the summons process is now fully in compliance with state law.
Those questions include whether people who may have been previously purged from the list of those who receive summonses in the first place due to a felony conviction have been added back to the rolls.
In addition, challenges to convictions that were secured after August of 2021, when a change in state law went into effect, are likely to continue to play out over the coming weeks and months.
“I think we are still in a wait and see mode,” said Danny Engelberg, with the Orleans Public Defenders Office.
More information is likely to be revealed at a hearing on Friday in the case of Mar’qel Curtis, one of the four teens charged in the death of Linda Frickey, who was killed in a carjacking last year. Curtis is set for trial on April 3 and would have her jury drawn from the current pool. Her lawyer has filed a motion objecting to it due to lack of evidence “that previously-purged potential jurors have been readmitted to the court’s prospective juror list.”
Her attorney also filed a motion arguing that the grand jury that indicted Curtis back in April of last year was “improperly drawn” and “selected in an illegal manner,” and that her indictment should be quashed.
For decades, no one with a past felony conviction was allowed to serve on a jury in Louisiana, regardless of how long ago it occurred. But in 2021, state lawmakers passed legislation that made it legal for anyone who has been off of probation or parole for five years to do so. That law, Act 121, was signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in June of 2021, and went into effect in August of that year.
But it appears that many courts throughout the state — including Orleans Parish Criminal Court — failed to update their jury summons process to reflect the change. The thousands of summonses the courts in New Orleans were sending out every month continued to indicate that anyone with a felony conviction was not qualified to serve on a jury. And a questionnaire for potential jurors asks if they have ever been convicted of a felony, but did not follow up to determine if they may be qualified under the new law.
Criminal court officials have testified that since the law change went into effect, 340 people who responded to their summonses were excluded from jury service for a past felony conviction. It is not clear how many of those people should have been eligible to serve on a jury under the new rules.
But advocates say that in addition to those 340, there are likely countless others with felony convictions who decided not to not to respond at all, due to the qualifications listed on the summonses.
“The disenfranchisement of 340 jurors is just the tip of the iceberg,” Engelberg said.
The issue was first brought to light in January of this year, when the advocacy organization Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) wrote a letter to criminal court judges in New Orleans informing them of the incorrect language on the summonses and the issue with the questionnaire, and urging them to halt trials until the issue was addressed. That did not immediately happen.
But after objections were raised by attorneys with the public defender’s office in an attempted murder trial the following week, an appellate court ordered the trial to be paused, and for the trial judge to hold a hearing on the issue.
Prior to the hearing taking place, the judges made the decision to put jury trials on hold altogether.
In addition to asking the court to fix the issue, VOTE also warned that dozens of convictions secured since the law went into effect may not be valid due to the illegal exclusion of jurors.
In January, an attorney for Michael Shorts, who was convicted of second-degree murder in July of 2021, filed a motion for a new trial based on the juror summons issue. But at a hearing last month Judge Laurie White declined to grant it, claiming that the attorney was unable to show that any people with felony convictions who were eligible to serve were actually excluded from sitting on Shorts’ jury.
The public defender’s office says they have around two dozen convictions currently on appeal that they believe were impacted by the improper exclusion of jurors, and they are considering the best way to proceed with challenges to those convictions.
Bruce Reilly, deputy director of VOTE, said that he appreciated the court taking the concerns of juror disenfranchisement seriously.
“Historically, the courts fail to listen to people who have been through the system,” Reilly said, “and this is a major reason why there are so many wrongful convictions throughout Louisiana’s history.”