Would Unanimous Juries Amendment Reduce Racism In Jury Systems Locally And Statewide?

By Edwin Crayton

 

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In the powerful movie “12 Angry Men” Henry Fonda played a man who was a juror on a jury deciding a case in which a minority teenaged boy was accused of murdering his dad. The film shows how the Fonda character gradually convinces the other 11 men that the evidence against the boy although it initially seemed strong is really not what it appears and is in fact not enough to convict him. The film makes clear how racial prejudice, a rush to judgment, and the selfish desires of distracted jurors to reach a verdict speedily all converge to mislead the jury to overlook key evidence in the boy’s favor. For me, this film illustrates a simple, compelling reason why a new constitutional amendment being debated in the Louisiana Legislature should be passed: If we can do anything to stop innocent people from going to jail or especially prevent their being executed unjustly, we should do it. This amendment seeks to reverse current law in Louisiana that allows juries to convict someone without all 12 jurors agreeing. Only Louisiana and Oregon have laws that allow juries to convict someone in this way, which is referred to as “non-unanimous”. Some supporters of the amendment point out that because of non-unanimous laws, historically, many Africans Americans in Louisiana have been unjustly convicted because they lacked the benefit of being tried under a more rigorous and humane system that requires all 12 jurors to agree—much like the teen in my example from “12 Angry Men”. In an article on Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s website, Senator J.P. Morrell, New Orleans, who proposed the amendment said the current law stemmed from “a Constitutional Convention in 1898 that tried to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War. He adds, “This was totally unnecessary and was born out of the fusion of racism and disenfranchisement.” The article points out that although Louisiana and Oregon are the only states to allow non-unanimous juries, Oregon requires unanimous juries for murder cases and Louisiana does not. Big difference. Equally notable is a comment in the article attributed to Angela Allen Bell of the Southern University Law Center. She contends the current law fast tracks people to prison. The article points out Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in America.

On the other side of this argument, opponents of the new amendment claim that requiring such a change in law would lead to costly trials because it’s hard to get a dozen people to agree on anything. It is true that Louisiana is very cost conscious and is dealing with a budget crisis so intense, at one point even the security of nursing home patients was at risk. But then again, how do you put a price on a person’s freedom and life? Natchitoches has a majority African American population so such a bill would have impact here if juries were ordered to agree unanimously. I say that because, while it’s true all people would be impacted, there is a growing sense in the African American Community that blacks—particularly black males—historically have been and still are unjustly treated in the justice system. Would changing the law make a difference? Should the amendment get a yes vote—providing it makes it to the public? As you know, 12 people serve on a jury. So I figured, why not go out on the streets of Natchitoches and asked 12 random people of various races to give their thoughts? Here’s their verdict:

Freddie Anthony: “I think we need a unanimous jury law. If you have 10 jurors who give one verdict and two who give an opposing verdict, the two might be right.”

Kevin Jones: “Yeah, the current system hurts minorities. It’s time to overhaul the Louisiana justice system. The amendment would help.”

Joey Matheson: “The current law feeds into a mob mentality because we look the other way when it comes to determining whether someone is guilty or innocent. Like in the film “The Oxbow Incident” they hung this guy and then found out he was innocent. They agreed he was guilty without the evidence. Their main goal was to find the guy guilty, not to find out if he was innocent.”

Herbert deLaunay: “I have mixed feelings on the subject. Sometimes in life you have to settle for probability because certainty is unattainable. But in capital cases involving crime or the death penalty, then certainty is more important.”

Mr. Miles: “I think our laws should be like everyone else’s. I think the current law does hurt blacks and minorities.”

Eula Coutee: “Yes, I think the law should be changed because it’s unfair. Too many people are going to prison who shouldn’t be.”

James Lorenz: “I thought all the states had unanimous juries. So yes, we should have a law that makes juries unanimous.”

Jerry Goff: “I think we need to change the law. We should be consistent with (the rest of the country).”

Tyrone Levi, ( University Student): “You’re better off when you have more opinions. All the votes should be equal and you should have all 12 jurors agree.”

Vade Gordon (former lawyer): “For criminal cases you need unanimous juries. However for civil cases it may work to have nonunanimous juries. The reason you need unanimous juries is because if you can’t get 12 people to agree on a verdict it’s an indication that something is wrong.”

Patrick Jackson: “Yes we need the new law. We need more justice, especially for black people.”

Amos Bradley: “If 10 people vote one way and 2 vote the opposite way, I say the case needs to be looked into further. So yes, I support changing the law.”

This amendment has passed the State Senate and will be voted on by the State House of Representatives next. If it makes it through, it will most likely be on a ballot for public vote in the fall. Call, text or email your state representative and urge him or her to vote your way. You can find yours at http://house.louisiana.gov/

“But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Amos 5:24

4 thoughts on “Would Unanimous Juries Amendment Reduce Racism In Jury Systems Locally And Statewide?

  1. How many people are in prison from Natchitoches that should not be there? Three largest cities in Louisiana have been run by politicians decrying the unfair justice system for twenty plus years now. They control the DA’s offices, the chiefs of police, the judges and many of the Sherriff Offices. So just where does the blame land for this unequal justice system.Maybe we need a quota system where we just put people in jail based on a demographic formula that matches the racial make up of community to make it fair.

    • With all that said all criminal trials should be unanimous jury verdicts for criminal conviction. Of course get ready for a lot more jury trials if this passes at a great increased cost to the taxpayers. I do not know the exact numbers but I am willing to bet that well over ninety percent of the cases in Natchitoches are settled by plea bargain before it ever comes to trial.

  2. I agree that any criminal trial should have a unanimous decision but it has absolutely nothing to do with race. If it were a race thing, why were the suspects arrested in the first place? If the majority of the arrests are of a certain race or sex or whatever distinction of society, and the case is strong enough for the DA to bring it to trial, how is that a race thing? In my opinion anything less than a unanimous decision is reasonable doubt. Period. Oh and by the way, it doesn’t matter what skin tone you are, everyone should be looked upon as equal in a court of law. Is there a race issue here in our majority black area?

    To the author: What percentage of jury trials were decided by less than unanimous decisions in Natchitoches Parish over the last ten years? Also what percentage were white, black or other minority’s? Is racist policing and prosecution occurring in our parish? Should retrials be ordered for everyone with less than unanimous decisions in the state? If so should it be based upon race? If so how far back should the retrials go? What would these trials do to our bankrupt state government?

  3. The burden has always been on the state to prove guilt. A system that allows a10-2 guilty verdict has always struck me as counterproductive to the idea of innocent til proven guilty. It needs to be incredibly difficult for the state to convict a person and deprive them of their freedom.

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