The End of Louisiana’s “Jim Crow Jury”

Last week, Louisiana voted overwhelmingly to abolish non-unanimous jury verdicts – a relic of Jim Crow that has, since its inception, silenced black jurors with terrifying and profound precision. Louisiana was one of only two states that allowed verdicts with only ten of twelve jurors. While resistance to Jim Crow juries has always existed, a pioneering study of over 5,000 jury trials in Louisiana between 2011 and 2017 gave a final burst of momentum to the movement. Tuesday’s historic “Yes” vote on Amendment 2 came almost exactly 120 years after the Jim Crow Jury was first adopted at the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1898, expressly convened “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this State to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done.”

120 years later, there should be no doubt that the Jim Crow jury was successful. The empirical evidence compiled exposes non-unanimous jury verdicts as an exceptionally effective tool of white supremacy, operating exactly as intended: first, to stifle the voices of black jurors who understand intimately the injustice of the criminal process, and second, to grease the wheels of the carceral machine intent on efficiently criminalizing black bodies. While black jurors made up less than a third of total votes in non-unanimous jury verdicts between 2011 and 2017, they cast more than half of these verdicts’ “empty votes,” or votes that were disregarded in a non-unanimous verdict. Not only were black jurors silenced, it was black defendants who were disproportionately convicted in these non-unanimous decisions. When a conviction was reached against a black defendant in Louisiana, there was a 43 percent chance that the verdict was non-unanimous. When the convicted defendant was white, that number dropped to 33 percent.

The margin of victory for Amendment 2—at nearly 2-to-1 (with only 3 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes opposed)—was a remarkable shift for a state that has long led the country in its tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice. Until very recently, Louisiana was the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country in the world. But it was another fact about Louisiana’s criminal process that featured prominently in the public debate over Amendment 2: Louisiana—and New Orleans specifically— is the wrongful conviction capital of the United States. Of the twenty-five individuals exonerated since 1990, eleven were sent to prison by non-unanimous jury convictions. 85 percent of voters in New Orleans voted in favor of the Amendment, which, alone, gave it almost enough support to succeed. The second highest percentage of support came from Caddo Parish, where more people were sentenced to death per capita from 2010 to 2014 than any other county in the United States. (The Parish’s former District Attorney, Dale Cox, has often said that Louisiana needs to “kill more people.”)

There were few clear indicators, however, that determined how a parish would vote, revealing the true extent of the campaign’s support. Some of the most non-white parishes, like East Carroll and Madison, had relatively low percentages of “Yes” votes, while some predominantly white parishes, like Jefferson, had some of the highest percentages. One of the few factors that did seem to have an effect was the level of vocal opposition from that Parish’s district attorney. In Sabine Parish, one of the three parishes that voted in opposition, District Attorney Don Burkett was one of the most outspoken critics of Amendment 2. Yet in an ironic twist, the powerful Louisiana District Attorneys Association (that has long fought for split-juries) did not take a position on Amendment 2. The LDAA does not take public stances unless it reaches a unanimous decision amongst its members.

Amendment 2’s overwhelming victory should not be understated: grass-roots organizers built an extraordinarily diverse coalition that should serve as a model for justice reform in the future. As Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative told us, “Our courts hold out the promise of justice for every citizen. With the passage of this Amendment, we are one step closer to making this promise a reality for the people of Louisiana. Together, our coalition and the people of Louisiana have shown that we are ready to move our criminal justice system forward and make justice a reality for all.”

As the movement looks ahead to the next battle for equal justice, how we frame this victory is critical. Across the political spectrum, Amendment 2’s success has been heralded as the final knockout blow for Jim Crow. “You, now, ladies and gentlemen have ended 138 years of Jim Crow,” declared Sen. J.P. Morrell, the sponsor of the legislation that led to Amendment 2’s place on the ballot. And while non-unanimous jury verdicts may have been the most egregious relic of Jim Crow left standing, they were simply the most visible piece of Jim Crow’s legacy on our criminal legal system, signifying the rot that reaches to the core of criminal justice in the United States. The abolition of the Jim Crow Jury is not the final blow, but rather, an essential first step in the long process of eradicating the structural racism at the heart of the country’s carceral regime.

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