Jurisprudence

Louisiana Might Finally Get Rid of Its Century-Old, Racist Jury System

Will it vote to join 48 other states in requiring a unanimous vote for a guilty verdict?

The entrance to the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Thousands of Louisianans have had their entire lives uprooted by a regressive criminal justice system.

On Nov. 6, Louisiana voters will decide the fate of a Jim Crow–era law that allows juries to convict people on felony charges with only 10 of 12 jurors agreeing on a guilty verdict.

Constitutional Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that would repeal the controversial law, would require unanimous verdicts for such convictions. If the amendment passes, Louisiana will join the ranks of 48 other states and all federal courts in requiring unanimity in criminal cases.

“There is absolutely no coherent reason why Louisiana should differ from 48 other states in how we prosecute criminal cases,” said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D–New Orleans, the author of the bill that has given voters the power to revise the law. “It makes our state look like a backward, ridiculous, uneducated bastion [of something] that other states mock us for.”

Roughly 2,000 inmates are currently serving life sentences as a result of nonunanimous verdicts in Louisiana. The law that allows for these verdicts is a tragic vestige of a system explicitly designed to marginalize black jurors and punish black defendants. It is long past time for it to go, and Louisiana might finally have realized that.

Dwayne LeBlanc is just one of the many black inmates who have been imprisoned because of this questionable practice. LeBlanc was sentenced to 150 years of hard labor in 1998 on one count of second-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder of a police officer. In LeBlanc’s trial, only 10 of 12 jurors deemed the evidence in his case sufficient to warrant conviction.

The two shootings at the heart of LeBlanc’s case took place in New Orleans’ infamous 9th Ward in 1994. Richard Borden, a local who allegedly stole a bag of crack cocaine from a drug dealer, was shot dead as he attempted to flee. When police officers reported to the scene of the shooting, the drug dealer once again opened fire, hitting one of the officers in the hand before retreating into the night. Because no fingerprint, hair, or DNA evidence was ever recovered, investigators had to rely on a tip from a local woman pinpointing a young man nicknamed “Twin” as the shooter. LeBlanc, an 18-year-old resident of the neighborhood who shared the nickname with his identical twin brother, fit the bill.

LeBlanc quickly became the sole suspect in the case. What investigators failed to account for was the other set of identical twins who lived in the neighborhood. Those twins shared the “Twin” moniker; bore a striking resemblance to the LeBlanc twins; were, according to one affidavit, known to have been drug dealers; and had been accused of a violent assault.

Casting more doubt on the case was LeBlanc’s claim that he was in California living with his brother and attending school at the time of the crime. School attendance records showed that he was in California on the Friday and Monday surrounding the Saturday shootings. When he was ultimately detained more than a month after the incident, it was California police officers who were tasked with arresting him.

Even though the evidence in LeBlanc’s case only convinced 10 of 12 jurors of his guilt, he was nevertheless convicted, joining the ranks of thousands of other Louisianans whose experiences call the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” into question.

Now, two decades after his conviction, LeBlanc is still serving his sentence at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. (Update, Oct. 24, 2018: Amendment 2 will not on its own grant the opportunity for parole to those like LeBlanc who are already incarcerated at the hands of split juries.)

The public debate surrounding Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury law is a relatively recent one. Ed Tarpley, a criminal defense attorney in Alexandria, Louisiana, and former district attorney for the 35th Judicial District in Grant Parish, played a large role in launching that discussion.

In June 2016, Tarpley authored a resolution adopted by the Louisiana State Bar Association calling for the Legislature to restore unanimous criminal jury verdicts. This paved the way for the bill introduced by Morrell, and ultimately next month’s vote.

Like most attorneys in Louisiana, Tarpley did not give Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury law much thought throughout most of his career. It was not until he read Thomas Aiello’s Jim Crow’s Last Stand, a book that details the racially motivated origins of the law, that he committed to doing all he could to see it repealed.

The split-jury rule was adopted in 1898 in response to the equal protection rights awarded to black citizens by the 14th Amendment. To minimize the influence of black jurors, lawmakers made the change. At the constitutional convention where the law was instituted, its proponents made their motivation abundantly clear—white supremacy.

“Our mission was, in the first place, to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done,” reads an excerpt from the convention’s Official Journal of Proceedings.

“[The law is] generally slated to disenfranchise black people, for the most part,” said Matthew Valasik, an assistant professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. “If you only have a few black jurors and they disagree with the majority, you can just ignore them.”

While Constitutional Amendment 2 has garnered substantial bipartisan support in the Legislature, it does have some powerful opponents—particularly Attorney General Jeff Landry and a number of prosecutors throughout the state. Landry’s argument, according to his chief deputy, Wilbur Stiles III, is that the amendment would result in a higher frequency of hung juries, rendering Louisiana’s criminal justice system much less efficient.

A few of the state’s most prominent district attorneys, though, have publicly supported the amendment, including Hillar Moore III, Paul Connick, James Stewart Sr., and Keith Stutes. But most prosecutors have remained silent on the issue.

Although the Louisiana District Attorneys Association is officially neutral on the amendment, some individual district attorneys have expressed their opposition. In a particularly heated exchange during the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee’s hearing on the measure in April, Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier’s comments on the law’s origins drew the ire of committee members who considered his remarks racially insensitive.

“You hear a lot about this being a vestige of slavery,” DeRosier told the committee. “No doubt that is true, but it is what it is, and that was 138 years ago.”

Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett, who also vocalized his opposition to the measure during the hearing, said he does not view the issue as a racial one. According to Burkett, Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury law serves to lessen the impact of jurors who are predisposed to distrust the government, regardless of race. He also harbors many of the same concerns expressed by Landry, who believes that Constitutional Amendment 2 will make the jobs of prosecutors much more cumbersome.

“I have no reason to believe that unanimous jury verdicts are any more reliable than nonunanimous jury verdicts,” Burkett said.

Morrell, however, considers this argument, shared by many who oppose the amendment, inherently defunct.

“The efficiency argument is complete junk to me,” Morrell said. “It just means that they will have to actually screen cases properly and charge people accurately. If their argument was a correct one, then every other state in the country would have worse criminal justice outcomes than us. Statistically, it’s the opposite.”

Despite wide bipartisan support for the restoration of unanimous criminal jury verdicts, proponents of Constitutional Amendment 2 still have one major obstacle left to overcome—low voter turnout. Unlike other states with much more at stake, Louisiana’s Nov. 6 midterm election offers little to entice prospective voters.

“The only reason why there is not overwhelming support is because the public, for the most part, doesn’t know that it’s a problem,” Morrell said.  “Once you educate voters on what the law is and how it differs from 48 other states, they support requiring unanimous jury verdicts in almost every instance.”

While many voters may be unaware of the amendment’s implications, for thousands of Louisianans whose entire lives have been uprooted by a regressive criminal justice system, the election offers hope for a long-overdue change.