As non-unanimous jury amendment vote nears, the fate of 12-member juries loom

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From left: Will Snowden, Mithun Kamath, Norris Henderson, and Aaron Ahlquist discuss Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law and the amendment that would change it.

Twelve men, one room, and a murder charge.

“It has to be twelve to nothing, either way. That’s the law.”

Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” is one of the most respected films centered around the criminal justice system. But the overall plot, where members of a 12-man jury must agree on a verdict that could send a teenager to the electric chair, could never occur in the state of Louisiana under state law.

Louisiana does not require unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials, instead allowing 10-2 verdicts to send the accused to prison for life. The abnormal verdict law stems from nearly 130 years ago, when delegates at an overtly racist convention ratified the state constitution to allow for non-unanimous juries. Norris Henderson, state director of the Unanimous Jury Coalition, explained the laws’ history during an intimate panel hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

Non-unanimous juries were developed to specifically disenfranchise African-Americans while providing free labor once slavery was outlawed. The law, Henderson said, is “Jim Crow’s last stand.”

Several statewide organizations have been pushing for an amendment for years, including the Vera Institute of Justice. William Snowden, the institute’s director and panel member, said non-unanimous juries help determine if the accused are willing to go to trial.

“Trials are seen as justice, but it’s not a fair playing field in Louisiana,” Snowden said.

Since 1989, twelve Louisiana prisoners have been exonerated after juries with non-unanimous verdicts. Rather than keeping us safe, the abnormal law chips away trust in the state’s criminal justice system, Snowden said.

Aaron Ahlquist, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League and panel host, said those exonerations are just the impacts of not requiring unanimity.

A barrage of local, state, and national organizations from completely different ends of the political, religious, and social spectrum have signed on to support the amendment. Even lawmakers from across the aisle are teaming up; the Louisiana legislature passed the referendum onto voters this May, with support from the GOP. The success stemming from the House’s vote has empowered other groups, Norris said, which has vaulted the issue to the forefront.

“This is really a bowl of gumbo around this thing,” Henderson said about the spectrum of support. “And it’s not just lip service – folks are actually engaged.”

While support for the amendment is apparent around most of New Orleans, the rest of Louisiana needs to support this issue. Snowden predicts a fifty-fifty chance of the referendum passing, especially with some of the opposing rhetoric stemming from other parishes. At least five parish-level prosecutors have voiced opposition to the amendment, and even more haven’t voiced a stance either way. That’s where voters come in, Snowden said.

The state requires about $70,000 a year to imprison a person, which explains the involvement of some fiscally conservative groups, panelist Mithun Kamath said. Kamath, a former Assistant District Attorney and current Director of Governmental Affairs for the Jewish Federation of New Orleans, said the issue is a matter of “dollars and sense.”

Some opponents claim the irregular law allows for a more efficient criminal justice system, and prevents serious criminals from avoiding prison time. But for 48 other states, unanimous juries have resulted in fewer prisoners – and fewer exonerations, Snowden said.

Early voting ends Saturday. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Encouraging, informing, and motivating all voters is the only way to ensure the amendment passes, Snowden said; the only way to ensure the storyline from “12 Angry Men” can theoretically occur in Louisiana, Ahlquist added.

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