'Jim Crow's Last Stand' In Louisiana May Fall To Ballot Measure
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There are many issues on the ballot this Tuesday. And in Louisiana, voters will decide whether to require a unanimous jury verdict for criminal convictions. A proposed state constitutional amendment would repeal a Jim Crow-era law that allows 10 out of 12 jurors to return a guilty verdict. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In 1975, Norris Henderson went on trial for second-degree murder in New Orleans. He thought he was a free man when there were two holdouts on the jury.
NORRIS HENDERSON: You know, being 19 years old, it's like, watched "Perry Mason" all my life and realized that, OK, 10-2, I'm out of here.
ELLIOTT: He was mistaken.
HENDERSON: Sheriff put the handcuffs on me and took me to the back. I was like, something ain't right.
ELLIOTT: The sheriff put the handcuffs on, and Henderson spent the next 27 years in prison until a judge released him. Now he's leading a coalition to push for unanimous juries.
HENDERSON: This is Jim Crow's last stand.
ELLIOTT: The split-jury rule is a vestige of Louisiana's 1898 Constitution, adopted in the period after the Civil War when slavery was abolished.
HENDERSON: During Reconstruction, they realized only way we going to disenfranchise all these African-Americans and be able to keep this free label - we have to devise a way. And this is what they concocted.
ELLIOTT: At the time, the state would lease convict labor to private landowners. The intent was clear, says Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.
ANDREA ARMSTRONG: That constitutional convention is really interesting because it put into place a number of measures in order to - and it - this is a quote from the convention itself - "to maintain the supremacy of the white race."
ELLIOTT: Armstrong says the legacy of that today is seen in racial disparities in the criminal justice system of Louisiana, which has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country.
ARMSTRONG: I would certainly say that African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by this split-jury law. What I think is also interesting, though, is this law allows the district attorney to have more leverage in terms of plea deals, in terms of the charges that they make.
ELLIOTT: The only other state that does not require a unanimous jury is Oregon. And even there, all 12 jurors must agree when it comes to murder. At the coalition campaign headquarters in New Orleans, canvassers are getting ready to deploy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just take a look at your maps. You might want to do a driver and a door-knocker in some cases, which is also...
ELLIOTT: Janice Long says this door-to-door work is about educating voters.
JANICE LONG: A lot of people have not even heard of it.
ELLIOTT: So they don't really realize that you don't have to have a unanimous jury?
LONG: Well, when I explain to them what it is, they say, well, I thought that was the way it was. No, it is not.
ELLIOTT: There's no organized opposition to the amendment, but some local prosecutors are speaking out.
SCOTT PERRILLOUX: Why would I support a change in the law which, in my opinion, will make it more difficult to achieve a just result? - justice, not convictions but justice.
ELLIOTT: Scott Perrilloux is the district attorney for Livingston, Tangipahoa and St. Helena parishes.
PERRILLOUX: I think there'll be some mistrials and hung juries that will result in, you know, more work and additional time, delayed justice for victims and their families. And for that reason, I'll be voting no.
ELLIOTT: But all kinds of advocacy groups are saying yes - criminal justice reformers, civil rights groups, even gun rights supporters.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
BLAKE MIGUEZ: Here in Louisiana, we don't take our rights for granted - our rights to bear arms, our rights to worship...
ELLIOTT: This ad features Republican State Representative Blake Miguez, a champion handgun shooter, at target practice.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
MIGUEZ: And no jury of our peers should be able to take away these rights from any of us if there is reasonable doubt. That means their decision should be 100 percent unanimous.
ELLIOTT: It's made for strange political bedfellows. Republicans and Democrats are behind the amendment. Outside financial support has come from both liberal philanthropist George Soros and the conservative Koch brothers. Lawyer Ed Tarpley is a former Republican DA who lobbied for the change. He says the guarantee of a unanimous jury is deeply rooted in American culture.
ED TARPLEY: In fact, John Adams, who was the second president, said that it's the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind.
ELLIOTT: Tarpley says Tuesday's vote in Louisiana is a fundamental question of liberty. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.
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