NEW ORLEANS — A constitutional amendment to end non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana was approved Tuesday by the state’s voters — a victory for a rare alliance of conservative and progressive organizations that got behind the measure to end a practice with roots in post-Civil War racism.
The amendment takes effect Jan. 1 and will leave Oregon as the only other state allowing split verdicts. It reverses a Jim Crow-era practice that made it easier to imprison non-whites by allowing as few as 10 members of a 12-member jury to convict defendants in felony cases not involving death sentences.
The amendment was pushed through the Louisiana Legislature by Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat. It received more than the necessary two-thirds approval in the House and Senate and drew strong support from factions rarely on the same page: On the right, supporters included the Christian conservative Louisiana Family Forum and the Koch Brother’s political organization Americans for Prosperity; On the left, supporters included the American Civil Liberties Union and Innocence Project New Orleans.
Supporters of the change noted the wide-ranging support the measure received as they celebrated their victory Tuesday.
“We have shown the nation that the people they are used to seeing fight against each other will come together for the common cause of freedom. That we will fight side by side for the liberty of our neighbors,” said Norris Henderson, state director of the Unanimous Jury Coalition.
Some district attorneys and their supporters in the Legislature opposed the measure, not wanting to make prosecutors’ jobs more challenging.
Not convinced by arguments that current law could result in the conviction of innocent people, Ed Burkett, the district attorney in rural Sabine Parish, said the amendment would enable a single juror to prevent conviction in a case where evidence proves guilt. “Justice is also not served when guilty people are not convicted,” Burkett said in an interview.
But Anne Ferris, a 43-year-old New Orleans resident who voted for the amendment Tuesday, said that wasn’t a good enough reason to allow non-unanimous verdicts to continue. She said she hadn’t realized until recently that felony juries didn’t have to be unanimous.
“There should be a unanimous verdict whenever there’s a jury trial. If there’s not a unanimous verdict then it’s a hung jury,” she said. “If it makes it harder, sorry. The prosecution needs to do a little bit better I guess.”
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association stayed neutral, and district attorneys supporting the measure included Hillar Moore III in Baton Rouge, James Stewart in Caddo Parish, Keith Stutes in Lafayette and Paul Connick of Jefferson Parish in suburban New Orleans. New Orleans’ district attorney Leon Cannizzaro is staying neutral.
Ed Tarpley, former district attorney in Grant Parish, championed the amendment.
“Once you know the history of this law, then you have to vote to repeal it,” Tarpley told The Press Club of Baton Rouge in July. “This is something that is a stain on the legacy of our state.”
He was referring to the split-jury policy’s post-Civil War roots in white supremacy.
But a racist legacy wasn’t the only reason supporters sought to overturn non-unanimous verdicts. There was also a view shared by those across the political spectrum that government doesn’t always get things right.
It was an attitude summed up in words flashing across computer screens in a 30-second online add by AFP. “Imagine your child is charged with a crime she didn’t commit,” the ad said. “Multiple jurors agree she is innocent but the government sends her to prison anyway. It happens in Louisiana.”