Criminal Law

Vote ‘yes’ on Amendment 2 to require unanimous juries

Based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, a New Orleans jury voted 10-2 to convict Kia Stewart of shooting Bryant “BJ” Craig to death July 31, 2005.

The two jurors who weren’t convinced that Stewart was guilty were right.

But Stewart, who was 17 when he was charged, spent nearly a decade locked up before the justice system acknowledged he wasn’t the murderer. Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny threw out his conviction in April 2015 at the request of defense attorneys and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office.

After the trial, students at Tulane University Law Clinic and lawyers with the Innocence Project New Orleans found 18 witnesses who saw the crime, heard another man confess or could verify Stewart’s alibi.

This case is just one example of the injustices that can occur when a defendant can be convicted on a murder charge without a unanimous jury.

Louisiana voters should change that. Constitutional Amendment 2 on the ballot Nov. 6 would require unanimous juries for serious felony offenses — those where the punishment is imprisonment at hard labor. State law already requires unanimous juries in capital cases and for six-member juries in lesser felonies. If the amendment passes, it would apply to cases on or after Jan. 1, 2019.

Our state is an outlier in allowing non-unanimous juries in most felonies. The federal court system and every state except Oregon require unanimous verdicts in felony cases.

There’s a reason they do: a commitment to justice.

The unanimous jury was a basic tenet from the beginning of our nation. The Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) report on the amendment quotes President John Adams: “It is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind.”

Louisiana’s Constitution initially included the requirement for unanimous juries. But that changed with the post-Reconstruction Constitution, written in 1898.

The shameful intent of that convention was to take rights away from black Louisiana residents. The members of the convention didn’t even try to hide it.

The PAR report quotes the Official Journal of the 1898 Constitutional Convention: “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.”

The non-unanimous jury law helped the state shift emancipated black residents from slavery into forced labor in the state’s privatized convict-lease system. That is a shameful piece of Louisiana’s history.

New Orleans Sen. J.P. Morrell sponsored the legislation to switch to unanimous juries. “I cannot think of a bigger civil rights thing we’ve done in my lifetime,” he said in May after the bill passed the Legislature. This vote is about civil rights.

It also could help ensure that prosecutors don’t overreach.

PAR notes that allowing non-unanimous juries encourages prosecutors to “over-charge a defendant in order to qualify for a 12-person jury needing 10 votes, and thus perhaps an easier conviction, as opposed to a six-person jury in which unanimity is required. This distortion can make it easier to convict someone of a greater crime than a lesser one.”

The Council for a Better Louisiana, which supports the amendment, points out in its analysis that non-unanimous juries played a major role in Louisiana for years having the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Compared with Mississippi, Louisiana has nearly twice as many people per capita serving life terms in prison, the CABL report says. Even with our state’s high murder rate, that seems distorted.

There is no definite count of how many people have been imprisoned in Louisiana by non-unanimous verdicts because some prosecutors don’t keep a record of that. But an analysis by The New Orleans Advocate newspaper of felony trials found that 40 percent of 993 convictions over a six-year period came from a split jury.

It’s not possible to know what would have happened if those jurors had been required to all agree on conviction. But the Constitutional Accountability Center says, “Evidence has shown that when unanimity is required, jurors evaluate evidence more thoroughly, spend more time deliberating, and are more likely to consider all viewpoints.”

There is strong, bipartisan support for Amendment 2 — from the state Republican Party and Americans for Prosperity-Louisiana to the ACLU Louisiana.

CABL, which in non-partisan, argues it this way: “Clearly, in this case Louisiana is out of step with other states and the federal government. The racist origins of our current law hurt Louisiana’s image, even if those who support it don’t harbor any of that racial intent. It is time for Louisiana to step into the mainstream on this issue and send a message that we are leaving behind a tarnished legacy we no longer embrace.”

It is long past time for Louisiana to correct this unjust law. Vote “yes” for Amendment 2.