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Elain Ellerbe | May 7, 2018
Stephanie Grace, a columnist for the Advocate states in her recent op-ed that “there is something awfully powerful about unanimity”. This is especially true when a large, diverse, bi-partisan group of people join together in a resounding voice of solidarity on such a weighty matter as effecting the requirement for all juries in Louisiana to be unanimous. That is exactly what happened during the recent House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee where SB 243 by Senator J.P. Morrell of New Orleans was deliberated before a large crowd in attendance.
Currently, Louisiana law allows criminal convictions for serious offenses to be determined by only 10 out of 12 jury members. At the outset of the 2018 Legislative Session, the prospects were slim that legislation would get passed to change another outlier aspect of Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Yet the bill made it through the Senate Judiciary C Committee favorably and then through the Senate on a 27 to 10 vote. The debate was not without controversy and set the stage for a frank discussion on how Louisiana came to be only one of two states, Oregon being the other, that allowed non-unanimous juries to decide the fate of offenders of certain classes of felonies.
The practice of non-unanimous juries was included in the Louisiana Constitution in 1898 during a tumultuous Constitutional Convention. Many scholars argue that the practice was implemented to “water down” the influence African-American jurors could have on a jury. The Supreme Court of the United States has already stated that it is unconstitutional to strike a potential juror because of their race. Without requiring a unanimous jury today, it is quite possible to have jury verdicts that carry that same effect in practice, directly or indirectly.
The only dissenting voices providing testimony were two District Attorneys. They argued it was difficult to get 12 people to agree, and cases may have to be retried and guilty people could go free. However, as was pointed out to the District Attorneys by other committee members supporting the bill’s passage, innocent people could also be found guilty. Their arguments only further affirmed why the law needs to be changed.
During the testimony, Rep. Denise Marcelle of Baton Rouge inquired as to why the District Attorney’s Association was not at the table to testify, and why they had not at least put in a card of opposition. It was revealed by the two District Attorneys who did speak that the Association was unable to obtain a unanimous vote from all members to take action on the bill. The irony of their lack of unanimity was not lost on the committee members or the room full of people watching the proceedings. Ultimately, the debate ended and the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee voted 16-0 to pass the bill onto the House floor where it is expected to be brought up on May 11. Unanimity does send a powerful message.
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