Since the 1950s, a replica of the Liberty Bell has been outside Louisiana’s State Capitol to serve as a reminder to cherish the freedom we share as Americans. It also serves as a reminder of the awesome responsibility entrusted to our elected representatives to protect these rights and freedoms for all Louisianans.
This includes the rights and protections guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which are at the crux of the current debate around non-unanimous juries in Louisiana. Sadly, this is a debate left unresolved in the 2021 Legislative Session.
Before the recent Supreme Court decisions concerning non-unanimous jury verdicts, Louisiana and Oregon were the only two states that did not require a unanimous jury verdict. The legal battle over Louisiana’s and Oregon’s lower standard for trial verdicts has played out in the courts beginning in the 1970s with Apodaca v Oregon.
In its recent decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court clearly ruled that Louisiana’s recognition of non-unanimous jury verdict convictions was unconstitutional. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that it would not choose the remedy for Louisiana’s unconstitutional practice where it concerned those who have already been convicted by a non-unanimous jury. Instead, it put the onus on the democratically elected lawmakers of Louisiana, the same lawmakers who walk by that Liberty Bell each working day, to determine the remedy for those individuals. The lawmakers have yet to do so.
Introduced this session, HB 346 would have applied the Ramos decision retroactively, allowing a pathway for the estimated 1,500 individuals affected to seek post-conviction relief, or to choose to become parole eligible. Unfortunately, the bill failed to make it out of the House Judiciary Committee.
A resolution for those convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts is critical to the constitutional rights of those individuals. It’s incumbent upon the Louisiana Legislature to act.
As recent as last week, the 14th Judicial District in Calcasieu Parish ruled that the Ramos decision applies to final convictions. In the 14th JDC case, an individual sentenced to 30 years for manslaughter had his conviction vacated due to being the result of a non-unanimous jury decision. While this decision only addresses one of the estimated 1,500 cases in Louisiana, the state court, in its decision, has moved in the direction towards a remedy that HB 346 sought.
In 2019, researchers in the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication conducted a survey of Louisiana’s 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative reforms. Seventy percent of those surveyed approved of the reforms. However, despite the popularity of the reforms, only 32 percent of Louisiana residents believe that the criminal justice system is fair.
If Louisiana is going to command a criminal justice system that is cost effective, rehabilitative, fair, and just, it must first earn the trust of Louisianans. It must address the mistakes of the past or risk undermining trust in the criminal justice system as a whole.
In April 2020, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch summed up this issue very clearly: “Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes…But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.”
This is the Louisiana Legislature’s problem to fix. The solution must address concerns surrounding those who have been convicted by a non-unanimous jury, while balancing public safety and the rights of victims. As we near the Fourth of July, a celebration of our Nation’s independence, what better time to highlight the effort that remains to ensure the God-given rights and freedoms of all our citizens are protected.