In 1898, the Louisiana Constitutional Convention gathered 138 white delegates with an agenda of discussing what to do with a massive population of newly freed slaves. Transcripts from the meeting revealed the following:
“Our mission was, in the first place, to establish the supremacy of the white race.”
An outcome of the 1898 meeting was the enforcement of nonunanimous juries. In a majority white jury, black jurors would be shut out of the final verdict; the focus becoming only to convince 10 out of 12 jurors. Over time, the United States criminal justice system came to acknowledge flaws associated with conducting nonunanimous juries. Eventually, unanimous juries became the standard in the courtroom. Nearly 120 years later, nonunanimous juries have been overturned by all states – except two: Louisiana and Oregon.
A documentary addressing these issues was promoted heavily by recording artist Usher Raymond and premiered at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival. With Louisiana holding a world record in incarceration rates, Guilty Until Proven Guilty outlined issues within Orleans Parish Prison while also addressing the problem with nonunanimous juries in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. The documentary centered around Tim Conerly, in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Conerly described himself as angry – being abandoned from parental guidance and left to govern his own life at five years old. By the time Tim was 16, he had spent 10 years in and out of prison, pushed in the foster system, and separated from his biological mother. He had never met his biological father. Conerly expressed in the documentary, “when I come home, my momma still thinking I’m 13, 14. I’m not a baby anymore… Prison raised me… told me who I am.”
Lawyer and senior counsel, Emily Maw, provided her perspectives in Guilty Until Proven Guilty as she detailed her work with IPNO – Innocence Project New Orleans. Since 2001, IPNO has been a part of releasing over 30 people who were wrongfully convicted. In the minds of many, if an innocent person simply proves their innocence, they ultimately hold the key to being released from prison. Maw negates this theory, saying in the film, “the process of gathering evidence to prove that you are innocent is more than most people will ever be able to do. Most innocent people will die in prison…”
The upcoming November 6th midterm elections are important. Citizens who vote YES on amendment 2 are voting to end nonunanimous juries in Louisiana. A future in Louisiana with unanimous juries will allow citizens to better defend their innocence. William Snowden, New Orleans public defender and founder of The Juror Project, emphasizes in Guilty Until Proven Guilty the overinflation taking place in New Orleans’ court docket. The D.A. accepts nearly 90% of cases presented by the police department, which, according to Snowden, could leave a public defender with an average caseload of up to 180 clients at one time.
In an effort to combat issues that have been historically present in the system, Jason Williams, President of the New Orleans City Council, announced at a panel discussion at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival that he would be running for Orleans Parish District Attorney in 2020. Leon Cannizzaro is now serving his second term; Williams previously ran against the incumbent Defense Attorney at a distant third place. Nevertheless, Williams remains committed to the issues in his pursuit. He emphasizes in the film, “black men get convicted of crimes they could not have committed all the time. Anyone that suggests that that is not happening and it has not happened in the South is blind and is ignoring the simple history of the state of Louisiana.”