Diverse Support for Amendment Requiring Unanimous Verdicts
The groups backing a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana felony trials are so politically diverse that casual observers might think support for the proposal is, well, unanimous.
Not quite. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association is officially neutral and a couple of district attorneys have spoken out strongly against the measure. Still, several prominent district attorneys back the change and other proponents include organizations not often on the same political page. For instance, the conservative Christian group Louisiana Family Forum and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity are encouraging passage, as are progressive groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and the Innocence Project New Orleans.
Opponents call the current practice of allowing 10-2 or 11-1 verdicts in serious felonies (except death penalty cases) a vestige of Jim Crow-era policies promoting white supremacy, making it easier to convict non-white defendants even if one or two non-whites are on a jury.
Sen. J.P. Morrell is the New Orleans Democrat who pushed the amendment through the Legislature. He believes another factor behind the widespread support may be that, when it comes to locking someone up, conservatives and progressives share a mutual distrust of government. An AFP online video evokes that sentiment, arguing that people innocent of crimes could be imprisoned as the result of a split verdict. Another video by the Unanimous Jury Coalition features two exonerated convicts who were imprisoned as a result of split verdicts.
"A lot of groups that are not usually allies seem to agree on this issue," Morrell said in a recent interview.
"Once you know the history of this law, then you have to vote to repeal it," former Grant Parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley, a Republican, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge recently. "This is something that is a stain on the legacy of our state."
District attorneys backing the measure include 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.
Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett, who testified against the measure, remains opposed. One juror, he said, should not be able to prevent conviction in a case where guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. "Child molesters, drug dealers, murderers — it's going to make it tougher than ever to convict them," Burkett said.
There are signs that the days of non-unanimous verdicts may be numbered regardless of what happens Nov. 6 in Louisiana.
In Oregon, the only other state that allows split verdicts, a state appeals court is considering whether the practice is constitutional. And in Louisiana, Burkett must decide whether to appeal a Sabine Parish judge's recent ruling that split verdicts are unconstitutional. The ruling, which followed an 11-1 verdict in a murder case, currently applies only to Sabine parish.