LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers made progress Wednesday toward allowing voters to determine whether felony cases should require unanimous verdicts, a change that supporters say would preserve defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.
Louisiana is one of two states – joined by Oregon – that allow non-unanimous verdicts to decide the outcome of felony cases. Only 10 votes on a 12-person jury is now required for a conviction.
Members of the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice voted unanimously Wednesday for a bill that would put the referendum on a fall ballot and give voters a chance to reverse a state law instituted in 1880. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, now heads to the House floor.
“This is a very important and historic piece of legislation, because I would venture to say that in our lifetime we will never face an opportunity like this – an opportunity to repeal a law that goes back to the Jim Crow-era in Louisiana,” said Ed Tarpley, a former district attorney of Grant Parish.
“It’s the unanimous jury of 12 citizens that makes a decision about whether to deprive someone of their liberty,” he added. “It’s a powerful protection we have in our government.”
But Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett said that although the Louisiana District Attorneys Association did not take an official position on the bill, the state’s district attorneys are overwhelmingly opposed to the change.
Louisiana previously had unanimous jury verdicts in trials from 1803 to 1880, but the law was changed in the post-Reconstruction era.
In 1898, lawmakers attached non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases to the state constitution, requiring 9 out of 12 to determine whether a defendant was guilty or would be acquitted.
During a constitutional convention in 1974, the vote was changed to 10 out of 12 jurors.
Because the proposed bill would amend the constitution, the measure would have to be ratified by Louisiana voters.
Supporters of the change say that the current-split verdict system makes it easier for prosecutors to obtain convictions and has sent more people to jail in a state that has been criticized for having the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the nation.
Marjoie Esman, former executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said “countless studies have shown time and time again that juries that have to deliver non-unanimous verdicts ask fewer questions, take less time to deliberate, and essentially rush to a decision in a way they would not do if it had to be unanimous.”