As Louisianans prepare to vote this fall, a bipartisan coalition will campaign to end a Jim Crow-era law that permits felony convictions by split juries.
Louisiana requires only 10 of 12 jurors to agree on a defendant’s guilt during felony trials. Voters will have a chance to change the law Nov. 6.
“It’s a stain on the legacy of Louisiana,” former Grant Parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley said at a media luncheon Monday. “It’s time for us to remove this.”
Tarpley, a Republican who lobbied extensively against non-unanimous juries during this spring’s legislative session, said the Unanimous Jury Coalition will use billboards, social media and websites to teach the public about the long-held law.
“The message has to be targeted, and it has to inform the people who vote,” he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge. “Once you know the history of the law, you have to vote to repeal it.”
Non-unanimous jury decisions in Louisiana date back to 1880, roughly 15 years after the Civil War. Tarpley said its passage was an effort to make convicting non-white defendants easier.
“There’s no question that the law was changed for the specific purpose of making it easier to convict the newly freed slaves,” he said. “Yet in the end, it wound up affecting everybody.”
Roughly 40 percent of convictions over the past six years have come from non-unanimous juries, according to findings from The Advocate.
The push to end non-unanimous juries in the state rose earlier this year with legislation from Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans). His resolution won wide support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, plus equal backing from religious, small government and civil rights activists.
“The unifying concern between conservatives and liberals on this issue is the purpose of our United States Constitution,” he said. “Once you make people realize that across the spectrum — regardless of affiliation and race — they go, I don’t trust government, and I don’t want to make it easier for them to lock me up.”
Since lawmakers backed the referendum in May, no public organizations have campaigned against unanimous juries.
Morrell expects similarly wide support from voters in November, so long as the coalition spreads its message throughout the state.
“You have to explain that [the law] is a thing,” he said. “Without you going to the ballot box to vote, it will continue to be a thing for the foreseeable future.”
Oregon is the only other state that permits non-unanimous verdicts in most felony trials, though murder cases require unanimity.
If Louisiana voters move to change the state’s verdict law, it would apply to felonies committed on or after Jan. 1, 2019.