Supreme Court to decide whether right to unanimous jury in Louisiana could be retroactive
More than 1,500 prisoners remain behind bars in Louisiana after being convicted by non-unanimous juries, a relic of the Jim Crow era that in April 2019 was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision.
Before that decision, which overturned a 1972 ruling, only Louisiana and Oregon allowed convictions by juries that weren’t in full agreement. Currently, the law change only applies to cases starting April 2019.
But an ongoing Supreme Court case by one Louisiana prisoner could require the state to offer new trials to those previously convicted by split juries.
The Supreme Court has until June to decide whether or not the law change must be applied retroactively. In preparation for the decision, lawyers such as Jamila Johnson, managing attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative, are working rapidly to identify hundreds of prisoners previously impacted by this law to petition for new trials. The legal team has identified more than 1,500 individuals convicted by split-juries who could receive a new trial under the unanimous jury mandate. All applications for a new trial are required to be completed by April 20.
“The Supreme Court named this what it is, a Jim Crow law,” Johnson said. “Now we are doing the work identifying the people whose lives have been damaged by this law.”
Louisiana’s split jury rule dates back to the state’s 1898 Constitutional Convention, whose mission, said committee member Thomas Semmes, was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done.”
Lawmakers approved the jury rule at the same convention where they also disenfranchised Black voters by approving poll taxes and a combined literacy and property ownership test, according to historic records of the 1898 convention.
In his majority opinion —which required Louisiana and Oregon to begin requiring a convicting vote by all 12 jurors —Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch cited this history and referenced that the law was used to render African American jurors' opinions "meaningless."
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In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito acknowledged that defendants being convicted non-unanimously "cannot be overlooked" but said requiring unanimous juries could impose "a potentially crushing burden" on courts in Louisiana and Oregon with no evidence that different jury requirements would yield different verdicts.
But untangling decades of legal precedent has left loose ends.
Mandy Jordan was 16 when she sat in a courtroom and watched 10 out of 12 jurors convict her mother Rhonda Jordan of manslaughter for stabbing a man who broke into their Louisiana home in North Baton Rouge. If the elder Jordan had received this verdict in neighboring Mississippi or Texas, she would not have been convicted.
“I remember looking out at the people deciding my mom’s case. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, anyone who represented my community,” said Mandy Jordan, now 28.
Rhonda Jordan was sentenced to 20 years at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. Like 80% of those still imprisoned by non-unanimous juries, she is Black.
For the Jordans, the Supreme Court case represents a slim chance at hope. Applying the unanimous jury law retroactively won’t mean Rhonda Jordan and more than 1,500 other prisoners are released from jail with scrubbed records. Instead, they would have the opportunity for a new and fair trial that follows the same rules as the other 49 states.
“We have suffered tremendously because my mother was not given a fair chance,” Mandy Jordan said. “...But there is at least some hope.”
The case of Thedrick Edwards prompted the Supreme Court to examine whether the unanimous jury decision should be applied retroactively. Edwards was 19 when he was arrested. He was convicted of rape and armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison by an 11-1 jury in 2007. The lone Black juror dissented.
Dana Cummings, the assistant district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish and the prosecutor in Edwards’ 2007 case, said she understands the history surrounding non-unanimous juries. While Cummings said she prefers non-unanimous juries for yielding quicker results, fewer hung juries and more room for jurors to maintain their own opinions, she acknowledged that eliminating split verdicts was crucial to maintaining public trust in the legal system.
“I think that had we not embraced (unanimous juries) we would have lost the trust of the people. And if you don’t have the trust of the people you don’t have a justice system that works,” Cummings said.
And while Louisiana has recently changed its law, Cummings said she does not believe the unanimous jury requirement should be applied retroactively to cases like Edwards’.
“What you’re saying is, even though these were just verdicts, even though these jurors were told, ‘When you get to 10, you stop, come out and give us a verdict,’ even though you can’t show there’s invalidity in these verdicts, you’re going to set aside a conviction that is 11 years old and require that they try them again for these very violent, horrible crimes? I just feel for my victims,” Cummings said.
However, prison reform advocates like Curtis Davis, executive director of the Re-entry Mediation Institute of Louisiana, say applying the rule retroactively is worth it even if it reverses charges for only one innocent man.
Davis was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder by a 10-2 verdict in 1992 and served nearly 26 years in Angola State Penitentiary. He spent many of those years in the prison’s legal library learning that a 10-2 verdict wouldn’t have convicted him in most other states. And since he accepted a plea deal to reduce his charges to manslaughter and get his release from prison, Davis has used that legal knowledge to advocate against what he calls an unjust system.
“If America is no longer the racist country it was when it was founded, if they want to make right on their moral commitment to treat everybody with fairness and equality in the United States… then they have to correct the wrongs of the past,” he said. PJI has until April 20 to file to reopen cases under the Ramos decision, and the Supreme Court has until June to decide in the Edwards case.
In New Orleans, newly-elected District Attorney Jason Williams may be providing the blueprint for how to handle cases previously convicted by non-unanimous juries. Williams’ office has created the Undoing Jim Crow Juries Civil Rights Initiative, which reviews applications by those convicted by split juries. On Feb. 26, his office announced that they would overturn final convictions for 22 people found guilty of felonies by split juries and would review hundreds of other similar convictions.
What it will mean
Overturning the convictions and ordering new trials is not a presumption of innocence. In fact, 16 of the 22 will plead guilty. However, the effort does ensure a constitutional trial that many were not afforded and severs the ties connecting those convictions to a racist past.
“This doesn’t mean that 22 people walked out into the streets today,” Williams said. “It means every single case will be reassessed and many will be re-prosecuted in an appropriate, constitutional, non-racist manner. The original process was unfair and tainted by a racist Jim Crow law. We must correct that flaw.”
Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.