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Convictions by non-unanimous juries were banned in 2020. Now more than 1000 applications may re-open cases in Louisiana



MONROE, La. – In Louisiana, more than 1,000 incarcerated people convicted by a non-unanimous jury have filed to reopen their cases, according to the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans-based legal nonprofit organization.

The announcement comes a year after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined that a Louisiana law allowing verdicts by non-unanimous juries violated the constitutional right to a fair trial. Oregon was the only other state prior to the Ramos v. Louisiana decision that allowed these types of verdicts—where only 10 out of 12 members of the jury are needed to find a defendant guilty.

The Jim Crow-era law has had a disproportionate impact on the Black community in Louisiana and has also served to silence the voices of Black jurors, criminal justice advocates say. The measure dates back to Louisiana’s 1898 Constitutional Convention, whose mission according to committee member Thomas Semmes, “was to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could legally and constitutionally done.”

As a result, 80% of people convicted by split juries in Louisiana are Black and about 62% of those convictions have resulted in life sentences, according to PJI.

While the Ramos decision was an enormous step in righting an old wrong, attorneys with PJI estimate that there are still about 1,600 people serving prison sentences in Louisiana due to split jury verdicts. The Ramos decision only applies to cases as of April 2019. However, an ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Louisiana prisoner could determine whether that decision can apply retroactively and give these individuals the constitutional right to a fair trial.

PJI has spent more than a year identifying and reaching out to incarcerated individuals who could potentially qualify for post-conviction relief.

“Our clients like most people assumed that when the Supreme Court states that a law is a Jim Crow law and is unconstitutional it means people with those convictions would get a remedy,” said Jamila Johnson, the managing attorney for PJI’s Jim Crow Unanimous Jury Project.

Achieving a fair remedy for the men and women who remain in Louisiana’s prison system because of these convictions would require a lot more work following the Ramos decision, Johnson said.

Louisiana law allows only one year for people to apply for post-conviction relief following a constitutional law change. PJI worked under a tight timeline to reach individuals. The endeavor was further complicated by the pandemic, which temporarily shuttered courtrooms and limited in-person visits to prisons. Communication with clients was reduced to letters and phone calls.

“It truly has been a mountain to climb,” said Mercedes Montagnes, the executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative. “We knew even before the pandemic this was going to be a logistical challenge. But then COVID hits and visits were closed off, communication was interrupted.”

Working with a team of 700 volunteer attorneys worldwide, PJI filed petitions for 1,040 individuals who qualified to have their cases reviewed. They supplied an additional 300 individuals with educational information to file applications on their own and trained private attorneys representing some of these cases. Applications were filed in 58 parishes, making it the largest campaign for post-conviction relief in Louisiana history, Johnson said.

Since cases are so spread out among jurisdictions across the state, Johnson said she isn’t expecting them to overburden the court system. In Orleans Parish, where roughly 350 post-conviction relief petitions were filed, the district attorney’s office has already started reviewing these cases. 

Newly-elected District Attorney Jason Williams’ office 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 others.

Johnson said other district attorneys in the state could take similar steps and start preparing now to reduce any burden on the courts.

Now attorneys are waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of Thedrick Edwards, who is currently serving a life sentence in Louisiana after being convicted of rape and armed robbery by an 11-1 jury in 2007. Edwards’ case could determine if the Ramos decision can be applied retroactively.

JonRe Taylor was the lone dissenting juror on the Edwards case. She was the only Black person serving on the jury and the only person close in age to Edwards at the time. He was 19 when he was arrested.

Taylor believes there wasn’t enough evidence presented at the trial to link Edwards to the crimes. The verdict has weighed on her since, she said.

She was considering going to law school at the time of the trial. But quickly felt disillusioned by the legal system.

“I felt surrounded by people who acted like my civic duty didn’t matter—it felt pointless to me,” she said.

A decision in Edwards’ case is expected in June. Louisiana is also considering legislation that would give anyone convicted by a split jury the opportunity to petition for a new trial or to go before the parole board.

Diane Lucas, the Pro Bono Counsel for Racial Justice Initiatives at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York, led a team of 50 volunteer attorneys working with PJI to take on 23 of these cases in Louisiana. Lucas said that even if the Edwards case doesn’t come out favorably, they are still asking Louisiana courts to apply the Ramos decision retroactively to their clients.

“A lot of people think of Jim Crow laws as something archaic. But no, we still very much have the legacies of slavery and the direct legacy of Jim Crow, because this law was on the books up until last year. In effect, it still is on the books because you have people who are incarcerated because of that law,” she said.