Supreme Court hears arguments in Louisiana-based unanimous juries case

Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could decide whether hundreds of Louisiana inmates convicted by non-unanimous juries get new trials.

The case stems from Thedrick Edwards, who a split jury convicted of aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery after a 2006 Baton Rouge crime spree.

A jury convicted Edwards, who is Black, with 10-2 verdicts on the robbery charges — then 11-1 verdicts on the other charges. His attorney, Andre Belanger, has noted that the lone Black juror had voted to acquit him.

“Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury scheme was thoroughly racist and discriminatory in its origin,” Belanger told the justices.

Louisiana voters agreed in 2018 to require unanimous jury verdicts in future convictions, thus aligning the state with most others. But because the new rule has not applied to verdicts reached before 2019, more than 1,500 inmates convicted by split decisions remain in the state’s prison system, according to the Promise of Justice Initiative.

The state’s solicitor general, Liz Murrill, opposes applying the new jury threshold rule retroactively. She told the court Wednesday that siding with Edwards would prompt backlogs in Louisiana courts.

“Requiring new trials and long criminal cases would be impossible in sum and particularly unfair to victims in these crimes,” she said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore — who supports requiring unanimity in trials moving forward — agrees with Murrill’s argument regarding past verdicts.

“Surely we have so many people from cases back in the seventies and eighties, those people are dead, no longer around,” Moore said in an interview Wednesday. “Things are destroyed, cases are gone. Witnesses memories are gone. That would be extremely difficult to do.”

But those who support revisiting previous cases say the resources tied to doing so would be worth the costs.

“Judicial expediency and the cost of a new trial really has to be weighed with whether people are languishing in prison on a wrongful conviction,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, who has advocated on behalf of criminal justice reform groups across the state.

“We should accept these cases being retried or whatever process they would have to go through,” said Jerome Morgan, who spent 20 years in prison after a split jury convicted him of a crime a judge later ruled he did not do. “That’s our responsibility as a society, as a government and as a court system.”

The Supreme Court could decide on the case, Edwards v. Vannoy, within the coming months.

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