People seldom know a lot of details about how the criminal justice system operates, they tend to instead focus on some of the more interesting highlights. Most folks have heard of about the right to remain silent, though they might not totally understand what it means. Same thing with the right to a lawyer, that usually rings a bell. And what about the requirement that a jury deliver a unanimous decision? Sure. Well… not quite, actually. A recent case in Louisiana is attempting to challenge the state’s law that allows for a defendant to be convicted of murder without unanimous agreement of the jury. To find out more about the law and the case challenging it, keep reading.
First, let’s start by saying that in 48 out of the 50 states, it is required that juries deliver a unanimous verdict before someone can be convicted of a crime, especially something as serious as murder. Lawmakers in Louisiana have taken a different approach and allow non-unanimous jury verdicts, even in cases involving murder that could result in life in prison.
So what’s the reason for the difference? According to its supporters, the goal is to encourage a more efficient judicial system. Rather than allowing courts to get bogged down with expensive mistrials or lengthy deliberations, the non-unanimous rule allows cases to more quickly move through the system. Prosecutors love the rule, because it dramatically increases their chance of conviction. Rather than have to convince everyone that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, you only need to win over 10 of the 12 jurors. That means that 2 people on a jury could have reasonable doubt and it wouldn’t be enough to stop a person from being sentenced to life in prison.
What’s the only other state that allows non-unanimous verdicts? Oregon. Even though both embrace non-unanimity, Oregon does so much differently. In Oregon, unanimous verdicts are required in first-degree murder cases. All other cases require at a minimum 11-1 verdicts. Another important difference? Oregon doesn’t have the same kind of racial disparities in its justice system that Louisiana does.
Echoing this point, critics say the real reason for the law is more insidious than expediency; it’s racism. Those arguing against the rule believe that racism played a role in pushing the law through the legislature and that even today it is used to incarcerate large numbers of black criminal defendants. Though defendants in other states could be saved by a single holdout juror, those unlucky enough to face trial in Louisiana have to hope for at least three. Critics say that the law in Louisiana allows prosecutors to technically comply with the constitutional requirement that minorities serve on juries, granting defendants a jury of their peers, but then turn around and nullify those jurors should they vote to acquit.
Recently, a public defender in Louisiana has tried arguing that the law is racist, and, as a result, unconstitutional. He brought his argument before a District Court judge who disagreed, saying that the public defender had failed to establish a discriminatory motive of the legislation as it relates to the non-unanimous verdict rule. The judge said the public defender must bring forward concrete evidence of discriminatory intent, and not just an educated hypothesis. Though the odds of overturning the non-unanimous rule may not look good right now, the law has many critics who feel it must be changed. Expect future challenges aimed at undermining the basis for the law, with the goal being to bring Louisiana in line with 48 other states.
Source: “Does Louisiana’s legal system in regard to criminal convictions discriminate against African-Americans?”, by Dee Thompson, published at LousianaRecord.com.