Louisianans to vote on repeal of Jim Crow-era law

Paul Braun, LSU Manship School News Services
Sen. J.P. Morrell’s bill will give voters a chance to require unanimous jury verdicts for all felony convictions.

After votes in both the House and the Senate this week, a proposed constitutional amendment has cleared the Legislature, and voters will have a chance to repeal a Jim Crow-era law that allows non-unanimous juries in many felony trials.

The bill would no longer allow convictions based on votes by 10 of 12 jurors and would require unanimous verdicts for all felony convictions. It was originally opposed by the state’s powerful district attorneys, but gained bipartisan support as it moved through the Legislature.

Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states that allow non-unanimous verdicts in jury trials.

Before the Senate voted 28-7 on Tuesday to accept the amendments made by the House, Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans and the author of the bill, thanked his fellow legislators for the bipartisan support.

“Very seldom do we have something of this magnitude, this historic, that has enjoyed such bipartisan support,” Morrell said.

On Monday, Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Livingston and the chairman of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, and Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, presented the bill together on the House floor.

Mack, who said he often sponsors legislation on behalf of prosecutors, said it was time for Louisiana to join “the rest of the country.”

“It’s time,” Mack said. “Do the right thing.”

The legislation passed 82-15 was met with applause on the House floor. Twenty-nine representatives signed on as co-sponsors.

James said the statewide referendum, which will take place Nov. 6, will give “the people of Louisiana the opportunity to right a 138-year wrong.”

Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law took effect in 1880 in what lawmakers then described as an effort to minimize the influence of black jurors in criminal trials.

Discussions of the law’s racist origins were at the center of contentious committee hearings about the bill.

Comments in support of the existing non-unanimous juries law by John DeRosier, district attorney for Calcasieu Parish, in the April 25 meeting of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee received national attention.

“I’ve heard a lot about this system being adopted as a result of the vestige of slavery-- I have no reason to doubt that,” DeRosier said. “I’m not proud of that-- the way it started-- but it is what it is.”

Rep. James responded by admonishing DeRosier for his comments.

“You are elected to represent everybody,” James said. “And to admit that it started in slavery and say ‘it is what it is,’ I hope the people of your parish are listening. And if they aren’t, I’m going to make sure they hear what you said here today. I am utterly offended.”

The committee then voted unanimously to advance the bill to the House floor.

In earlier committee meetings, Morrell had called the existing non-unanimous jury law “schizophrenic” for requiring unanimous verdicts from the six-person juries that decide less serious felony offenses and the 12-person juries in death penalty cases, but only requiring 10 jurors to deliver a guilty verdict or an acquittal for all other felony offenses that are tried before 12-person juries.

Louisiana stands alone as the only state that allows non-unanimous verdicts for crimes that carry a sentence of life without parole.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, spoke against the bill when it was first considered in a Senate judiciary committee, saying it would lead to more hung juries and greater costs to prosecutors. The organization took a neutral position on the legislation.

If the ballot measure passes this fall, unanimous juries will be required in all felony trials for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 2019.

Originally published on May 15.