A district court in Louisiana ruled the state’s use of non-unanimous juries is unconstitutional and violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
The court found the “non-unanimous jury verdict scheme in Louisiana was motivated by invidious racial discrimination.”
“All cases that are currently pending trial and all cases on direct review must now be adjudicated subject ot a unanimous jury requirement,” the court ordered. However, prior cases and convictions may not be challenged.
According to the state’s constitution and a section of the state’s criminal code, cases involving capital punishment require a unanimous decision by jurors.
But in cases where the punishment is “necessarily confinement at hard labor,” only 10 of 12 jurors are required to find a defendant guilty. Cases where imprisonment is only a possible outcome require an even lower threshold—six jurors.
The ruling comes as Louisiana residents vote on Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that would “require the unanimous agreement of jurors, rather than just 10 of 12 jurors, to convict people charged with felonies.”
Louisiana and Oregon are the only states that permit juries to convict defendants without unanimous agreement.
The ruling stems from a case involving Melvin Cartez Maxie, who was convicted for killing Tyrus Thomas in a shoot-out and car chase after a fight at a party in 2013. The court ordered a new trial for Maxie with a unanimous jury verdict for any conviction.
Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty against Maxie, which would have required a unanimous jury to convict him. But in August 2016, they abandoned that pursuit.
The Capital Assistance Project (CAP), which provides legal representation to defendants facing the death penalty, no longer had to represent Maxie. Yet, the organization chose to train less-experienced attorneys and stay on the case.
CAP filed a motion declaring the non-unanimous jury provisions in the constitution and criminal code unconstitutional. The following month, the court held a hearing on the merits of the requirement that Maxie be convicted by a unanimous jury verdict. The court denied that motion.
In 2017, Maxie went to trial and was convicted of second-degree murder.
Maxie’s attorneys continued to fight, and in July 2018, a hearing was held where they presented testimony on the constitutionality of these provisions.
John Simerman, a journalist for the New Orleans-based newspaper, The Advocate, testified about his series investigating Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict system, “Tilting the Scales.” He testified on his research and analysis, which covered 2,931 cases of the 3,906 cases reported to the state’s supreme court between 2011 and 2016.
Research showed the racial composition of juries, particularly in the East Baton Rouge Parish, was representative of the population in the state. Simerman also highlighted how minority jurors were often peremptorily struck by prosecutors at significant rates while white jurors were not.
Thomas Aiello, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Voldasta state University in Georgia, testified as an expert and placed the non-unanimous verdict system in a historical context.
As the court described, Aiello “persuasively demonstrated that race was a motivating factor behind the adoption of the 1898 constitution, especially with respect to disenfranchisement of minority voters and stripping the ability of minorities to influence the judicial system.”
His testimony, Judge Stephen Beasley wrote in the ruling, showed the non-unanimous jury verdict scheme in Louisiana “was motivated by invidious racial discrimination.”
The post-Reconstruction South wanted to remove black Americans from all political and legal processes. White supremacists viewed African-American jury service as “counter-productive” to their cause. They also saw African-Americans as a “homogeneous group, whose beliefs were antithetical to those of the whites and that African-Americans would “thwart” “justice” at every opportunity.”
At the 1898 convention for the state’s constitution, delegates were concerned the federal government might intervene. They “adopted a facially race-neutral law that was designed to ensure that African-American jury service would be meaningless by constructing a non-unanimous jury verdict system based on relative demographics of the population.”
“It would be highly unlikely that any jury would ever have more than three African-Americans, and therefore their service would be silenced,” Beasley summarized. “This was all predicated on the belief that the races voted as groups and African-Americans as a group could not be trusted with the administration of justice.”
The court noted African-American jurors were 250 percent “more likely to cast an empty vote, that is, a vote that has no impact on the outcome of a jury trial than a white juror.”
“It is clear that non-unanimous jury verdicts were motivated by racial animus. The historical context in which the rule was adopted was clearly hostile to African-Americans,” Beasley concluded.