BATON ROUGE, La. — In Louisiana, a law from the Jim Crow-era lets divided juries decide criminal cases. Voters are poised to have a chance to change that.
The House on Monday approved a constitutional amendment to bring the state in line with nearly the rest of the country in requiring that a jury reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict a person. The Senate has already backed the proposal but must approve minor amendments before the measure can go to a public vote in November.
Currently, serious felony trials in Louisiana, including some murder cases, can be decided when 10 of 12 jurors agree on a person's guilt. The only other state to allow split jury decisions is Oregon, though that state requires unanimity in murder cases.
The proposal was once a longshot in the statehouse. District attorneys have testified against it, saying that it's sometimes hard to get all 12 jurors to agree on guilt. One senator reasoned that requiring unanimity could result in more hung juries and costly retrials. Last month, the bill passed the Senate by a single vote over the two-thirds margin required to change the state constitution.
But in the House on Monday, no one spoke in opposition to the bill and it passed by a vote of 82-15.
"This is the right thing to do," said Rep. Sherman Mack, a Republican who carried the bill for sponsoring Sen. J.P. Morrell in the House.
Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, traced the rule back to the constitutional convention of 1898 and said it became law as part of an effort to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War.
"I cannot think of a bigger civil rights thing we've done in my lifetime," he said of the bill's success.
It is difficult to gauge how many people have been imprisoned in Louisiana on split decisions, as not all prosecutors in the state maintain information on how juries vote. Some divided jury verdicts have been detailed in the press, such as the 10-2 conviction of a man who fatally shot retired New Orleans Saints star Will Smith. An analysis from The New Orleans Advocate newspaper of felony trials over six years showed that 40 percent of 993 convictions came from split juries.
Criminal justice advocates cheered the outcome of the vote.
"Louisianans now have the opportunity to change our state's non-unanimous jury law, a policy that is rooted in racism and that consistently risks sending innocent people, most often from communities of color, to prison," said Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.