In 2005, 17-year-old Kia Stewart was sentenced to life in prison for the fatal shooting of Bryant “BJ” Craig. This was in spite of the fact that two members of the jury felt that Stewart was innocent.
It turns out they were right. Stewart served nearly 10 years of his life sentence before his conviction was thrown out in April 2015 at the request of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. It seems that six different witnesses had identified another man, Antonio Barnes, as the shooter.
Had this case been tried in any other state in the U.S., a hung jury would have resulted in a mistrial, Stewart would have been tried again, and it’s likely those witnesses would have been found. In Louisiana, it left an innocent young man spending 10 years in Angola State Prison. And this is just one of many cases.
It hasn’t always been this way. The original Louisiana constitution required a unanimous jury verdict in felony cases. It wasn’t changed until 1898 – during the post-civil war Jim Crow era. This being the same era in which many Confederate statues were erected throughout the city of New Orleans, a time when revisionist history was rampant.
According to the non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council, the shameful reason why was made clear by 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.”
In other words, the sole purpose of removing the unanimous jury verdict requirement was to move emancipated black residents into a new form of slavery inside Louisiana’s state-owned prison system.
And it worked. Up until recently, Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate of any state in the U.S. (we were recently unseated by Oklahoma). The combination of non-unanimous convictions, mandatory sentencing laws, and restrictive parole practices kept a large portion of the state’s population behind bars.
A proposed amendment that will be on the ballot in November hopes to change all that. Louisana Amendment 2, The Unanimous Jury Verdict for Felony Trials Amendment, would make it a requirement that any felony conviction receives a unanimous jury verdict. It’s an amendment that is supported by both parties – a rare thing in today’s political climate.
There can be no justice in a system where every voice on the jury isn’t valued.
It’s time for our state to stand up for justice. It’s time for our state to join the rest of the country in recognizing that unanimous jury verdicts are an essential part of our constitutional system. And, it’s time for Louisiana to own up to the racism that has been insidiously living through these laws in our legal system for the past 120 years.
This November your vote can make a difference. We here at Big Easy Magazine encourage you to not only speak about your values but live them out through your actions. Vote “YES” in support of Amendment 2.
The Big Easy Magazine editorial board is a diverse group of people who are passionate about encouraging the spread of progressive values such as kindness, compassion, equality, love, justice, and inclusiveness. You can learn more about individual board members here.