People convicted of felonies years ago by nonunanimous juries in Louisiana would have a chance for parole under a measure advanced at the Legislature on Thursday — over the objections of criminal justice advocates who said it doesn’t go far enough to right a historic, racist wrong.
Advocates and relatives of people imprisoned on 10-2 or 11-1 verdicts harshly criticized the bill, saying that granting parole — instead of a new trial — leaves those convicted branded as criminals with limited freedoms. “It has to be true relief,” said Hardell Ward, an attorney with the advocacy group Promise of Justice Initiative. “Release from being considered guilty.”
Ward told the House Judiciary Committee, during a livestreamed meeting in Baton Rouge, that there are an estimated 1,500 people incarcerated under nonunanimous verdicts.
Rep. Randal Gaines’ bill would establish a state commission granting three retired appellate or state Supreme Court judges, appointed by the governor, the power to grant parole eligibility if they find an applicant convicted by a 10-2 or 11-1 verdict suffered “a miscarriage of justice.”
The LaPlace Democrat’s bill is the latest to address what justice advocates deride as a Jim Crow-era policy designed to make prosecution and conviction of Black defendants easier, even with one or two Black people on the jury.
In 2018, Louisiana voters amended the state constitution to require unanimous verdicts for crimes committed in 2019 and thereafter. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court declared nonunanimous verdicts unconstitutional in all cases involving pending appeals.
In Oregon, the only other state that had allowed nonunanimous verdicts, the highest state court this year struck down the older verdicts retroactively. As for Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court and Louisiana’s Supreme Court both have refused to grant relief retroactively in older cases. And supporters of retroactivity have been unable to secure a bill ordering new trials in the Legislature.
Gaines cast his bill as an attempt at compromise. It was advanced to the House floor by a 10-1 vote of the House Judiciary Committee, with some who backed it saying they hoped to see people on all sides of the issue work out acceptable language before a floor vote.
“I get this remedy is not perfect,” committee co-chairman Sherman Mack, a Republican from the Albany area, told the bill’s opponents. “Nothing, I think, is probably worse.”