BATON ROUGE — A measure proposed by state Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) that would change the requirement to convict a defendant of a felony to a unanimous jury vote from a nonunanimous vote could lead to the single most important legal reform in the state’s history, a law scholar said.
“Rep. Edmond Jordan (D-Baton Rouge) has proposed companion legislation,” Angela A. Allen-Bell, associate professor of legal writing and analysis at the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge told the Louisiana Record.
Allen-Bell said the law requiring a 10-2 vote is racist in nature, and she supports the efforts of the two legislators to change it.
Morrell, who represents the New Orleans area, said in an April 14 interview with WSB Radio News that the current law is an arcane holdover from the Jim Crow era. He said the law had been adopted at an 1898 state convention in an attempt to maintain white supremacy.
Morrell called for change.
“It’s a self-defeating illogical position to have two jurors say ‘we don’t think he did it,’ then prosecutors say we met our reasonable doubt standard,” Morrell said during the WSB Radio interview.
Morrell added that careful decisions are not being made on who is guilty and that the nonunanimous vote requirement was designed to minimize the voice of African-American jurors.
Allen-Bell said historically the state had a unanimous jury vote requirement dating to 1803 when Louisiana was a territory, but it adopted the 10-2 rule after the Civil War and the end of slavery when troops were withdrawn. She noted the stricture became part of the Louisiana Constitution in 1898 to assert white supremacy and to obtain quick convictions that would provide free prisoner labor to replace the lost labor of slaves.
She said the issue is important because the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of an impartial jury.
“The 1898 change (10-2 jury vote) was not done by a vote of the people,” Allen-Bell said.
She added voters have been given little disclosure about the history of the law or its implications.
“There are a host of unintended but real consequences,” Allen-Bell said. “Disproportionately high numbers of plea bargains, mass incarceration, voter suppression, wrongful convictions, marginalization of minority and women voters and public mistrust. It becomes clear we are not just discussing a race or defendant matters. Instead, we are discussing the sacred and cherished matters of liberty, freedom and justice.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Morell’s legislation, Senate Bill 243, passed April 4 by a single vote over the required two-thirds and moves to the House, where it faces opposition from conservatives who oppose it partly because they said requiring a 12-0 jury verdict will result in more hung juries and costly retrials.
If the bill passes the House it will go to a public vote in the fall.