A year ago, state Sen. JP Morrell offered a bill to require unanimous jury convictions in Louisiana. When it came to criminal law, Louisiana was an outlier. Every other state but Oregon required jurors to all agree before shipping someone off to jail.
Morrell saw the measure as a conversation starter. It sometimes takes two or three years before a good idea becomes law.
But the unanimous jury movement gained steam quickly, and we’re proud to say we played a role in that.
In April and May, The Advocate began publishing “Tilting the Scales,” an exhaustive review of the racist origins and disparate impacts of Louisiana’s unique laws allowing convictions by divided juries.
Our managing editor for investigations, Gordon Russell, and reporters Jeff Adelson, Jim Mustian and John Simerman spent a year reviewing the record of nearly 3,000 trials, covering a six-year span, in courthouses from Shreveport to Chalmette. They reached back in time to understand the motivations of a 120-year-old state constitutional convention, where racist delegates in the Jim Crow era hatched a scheme to diminish the voices of black jurors by allowing their votes to be ignored.
They were not quite done with their work, but the movement for unanimous juries seemed to need a boost, so The Advocate began to publish its findings April 1, Easter Sunday, even though we had not completed all of the photography.
Soon, conservative Republicans joined Morrell in supporting unanimous verdicts, and the state’s district attorneys dropped their opposition. Morrell’s measure, an amendment to the Louisiana constitution, went onto the ballot, and in November Louisiana voters spoke forcefully in favor of unanimous juries.
But the amendment also benefited from courageous political leaders. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans, won over his colleagues in the state Senate. Sherman Mack, a Republican state representative from Livingston Parish, signed on and ushered the measure through the House, which is more conservative — and more combustible.
Ed Tarpley, a conservative former district attorney from Alexandria, traveled the state urging prosecutors to see that divided juries may help conviction rates, but they undermine justice. Big-city district attorneys like Hillar Moore III of Baton Rouge, Paul Connick of Jefferson and Keith Stutes of Lafayette endorsed the unanimous jury amendment — even though it will make their jobs tougher.
The ultimate winners were the voters of Louisiana. Nearly two-thirds of them cast ballots in favor of unanimous juries, and the measure won more than 900,000 votes and carried 61 of 64 parishes.
Louisiana voters often seem willing to settle for second-best, in our politics or our schools or our environment. We deserve more, and Monday’s prize announcement reminds us how good things can happen when we demand better.
—The (Baton Rouge) Advocate