NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than 1,500 current Louisiana inmates — including 900 serving life sentences without parole eligibility — were convicted by nonunanimous juries, according to a recent report by criminal justice advocates.
The report was released Tuesday by the New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative. It comes ahead of a Dec. 2 hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court has barred nonunanimous verdicts in future cases and those still on appeal. The December hearing could determine the fate of those whose appeals are done.
Lawyer Liz Murrill, who works for Attorney General Jeff Landry, has argued that overturning the split-verdict system retroactively would swamp the state’s courts with challenges to decades-old convictions, and new trials, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reports.
Louisiana voters abolished split verdicts in 2019, but only in trials for crimes committed after that election.
In April, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, effectively handed new trials to people convicted by split juries and required unanimous verdicts in all trials going forward.
In May, the high court agreed to take up the case of Thedrick Edwards, the case that could decide whether hundreds of people convicted by 10-2 or 11-1 jury votes must get new trials. Edwards is a life prisoner who was convicted by a split jury of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and five counts of armed robbery from a 2006 crime spree in Baton Rouge.
Laws allowing nonunanimous jury verdicts date to the Jim Crow era. The Advocate in 2018 published the results of research on six years of jury trial data across Louisiana that found 12-member juries ended with divided guilty verdicts 40% of the time. Black defendants were 30% more likely than white defendants to be convicted by split juries.
Jamila Johnson, who has led the Promise of Justice Initiative's Jim Crow Juries Project on current inmates, said the organization was able to verify 1,543 split verdicts so far through court files, transcripts and appeals court records, with perhaps others that still could be added.
There were indications of split verdicts in about 500 of those cases that could not be verified with contemporaneous, unsealed records, she said.
The report found a greater share of Black inmates convicted by split juries, at 80%, than the 67.5% of the wider prison population that is Black.