“Most people believe that in Louisiana, a unanimous jury [verdict] is required in Louisiana. That’s incorrect. I just want people to understand…this could happen to you too,” says Will Harrell, the Senior Policy Counsel for VOTE, an organization that mobilizes voters people affected by the criminal justice system. Founded in the infamous Angola prison, the organization is now part of a coalition called the Unanimous Jury Coalition (UJC), that seeks to require all felony convictions in Louisiana to rule with a unanimous jury verdict.
Monday the UJC held an open house, to kick off their New Orleans campaign. The UJC is working pass a unanimous jury initiative on this year’s ballot by bringing together a coalition of allies, from both the right and the left, as well as leaders from faith communities, artists, and activists. The organization is gearing up to run on-the-ground get out the vote and voter education campaigns in all of Louisiana’s major cities, as well as conducting outreach and education online. The central staff includes Norris Henderson, the Executive Director who also co-founded Executive Director of Voice Of The Experienced (VOTE) while incarcerated in Angola, Sister Alison McCrary, a Catholic nun, attorney, and Spiritual Adviser on Louisiana’s death row, who serves as the Statewide Director of Operations, and Lynda Woolard, a Democratic Party activist and organizer.
Currently, a jury in Louisiana can make a criminal conviction of any offense other than a capital (death penalty) offense, with a 10-2 vote.
“Two people could be adamant that you’re innocent, and it won’t matter,” says Harrel, who has worked for 20 years in the Coastal South on criminal justice reform.
With a 10-2 jury vote, a judge can still sentence a defendant to life in prison without parole.
Curtis Ray Davis II, an outreach paralegal for the New Orleans chapter of the SPLC, calls life without the possibility for parole “the second death sentence”. He served 26 years in Angola prison, after being convicted by a 10-2 jury vote.
“This is part of why Louisiana is a world leader in incarceration… I would rather be charged in Iraq than in Louisiana,” says Davis.
Louisiana is one of only two states in the country that allows for non-unanimous jury rulings in criminal cases (the other is Oregon). The system allows for an already unjust system to become even more corrupt against defendants, especially people of color. Studies consistently show that crimes against white women are more likely to result in a conviction, and that people of color are more likely to be both charged and convicted of criminal offenses, and more likely to be wrongfully convicted. Allowing a non-unanimous verdict injects only more subjectivity into the proceedings, and in fact in 40 percent of New Orleans exonerations, a non-unanimous verdict was used in the conviction.
To overturn the law that allows non-unanimous verdicts, the electorate in Louisiana needs to pass ballot initiative 2. The initiative, which will be on ballots across the state of Louisiana, will state: “Do you support an amendment to require a unanimous jury verdict in all noncapital felony cases for offenses that are committed on or after January 1, 2019?”
To vote that all felony cases must be decided by a unanimous jury, the UJC is asking Louisiana voters to vote YES on this measure.
“It’s not about letting people off, it’s about making sure the guilty party is actually convicted,” says Harrell. Currently, the non-unanimous jury law system encourages innocent defendants to take plea bargains, rather than to take their chances with a jury that does not even have to agree unanimously on their guilt. A study from the local nonprofit Courtwatchnola showed that almost 60 percent of observed trials in New Orleans had no evidence presented whatsoever.
There has already been an outpouring of support for the initiative, with the state Republican Party endorsing the initiative, as well as the Nola.com Editorial Board, The Advocate Editorial Board, the New York Times Editorial Board, The Louisiana Family Forum and others. Harrell told Big Easy Magazine that the New Orleans Second Line community has been especially supportive of the initiative.
“We gotta get people to show up to vote… If people show up to vote, we will win”
Election day is November 6th. To find your polling place, click here.