Louisiana's unique law that allows a jury to send a person to prison for life without the consent of all 12 jurors did not happen by accident, reports the New Orleans Advocate.
The drafters of the state constitution Louisiana adopted in 1898 said they aimed to “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana,” primarily by scrubbing from the rolls nearly all of the roughly 130,000 black people then registered to vote.
But delegates knew they couldn’t simply ban black people from the voting booth or jury service without running afoul of the 14th and 15th amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court had explicitly said so. Instead, the jury laws those delegates drew up allowed for convictions with only nine of 12 jurors agreeing, meaning that if one, two or even three black people made it onto a jury, their votes wouldn’t matter.
These days, 10 votes are required for conviction instead of the original nine, and today’s defenders of split verdicts say Louisiana’s law now stands not for racism but for efficiency, by limiting hung juries and potential retrials.
But the effects are the same, according to an exhaustive, first-of-its-kind analysis by The Advocate.
The Advocate reviewed about 3,000 felony trials over six years, turning up 993 convictions rendered by 12-member Louisiana juries in which the newspaper was able to document the jury votes.
The remainder included trials ending in hung juries, those halted by last-minute plea deals, lesser felony trials with six-member juries and many others with scant records.
Although the majority-verdict law disadvantages all defendants, the newspaper’s review found that its effects on black people accused of crimes are especially profound. It acts as a capstone to a trial system that becomes more tilted against black defendants at each stage: when jurors are summoned, when they’re picked for juries, and in deliberation rooms where voices of dissent can be ignored.
Black people make up roughly one-third of the population in Louisiana, but they comprise two-thirds of state prisoners and three-fourths of inmates serving life without parole. Louisiana, America’s incarceration capital, also leads the nation by far in these life sentences, nearly all of them the result of jury verdicts.
The newspaper’s analysis found that 40 percent of trial convictions came over the objections of one or two holdouts. When the defendant was black, the proportion went up to 43 percent, versus 33 percent for white defendants. In three-quarters of the 993 cases in the newspaper's database, the defendant was black.
In many cases, black defendants are not being judged by juries “of their peers” — at least not racially speaking. The newspaper scrutinized what happened to nearly 41,000 prospective jurors who reported for duty in felony trials in nine of the state’s 10 busiest courthouses and found that these jury pools were whiter than their communities, and the juries picked from them were whiter still.
The average jury in East Baton Rouge Parish, for instance, has nearly two fewer black people than it would if the panel reflected the population. In St. Tammany Parish, juries have about half as many black members as the parish's population.
Oregon, the only other state to allow split verdicts in felony cases, demands unanimity when the charge is murder.
If that 10-2 scenario arose in any of the other 49 states, the judge likely would order the jurors to keep working until one side swayed the other to reach unanimity — or until the deadlock was too hopeless to break. Then, the judge would declare a hung jury and a mistrial.
Yet another possible outcome would be a compromise, with the jurors settling on a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.
It’s hard to predict which way the chips would fall, even for some dissenting jurors themselves.
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