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Louisiana Just Made a Major Stride in Ending Jim Crow in the State

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Dasheika Ruffin,
Southern Regional Director,
ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice
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November 1, 2018

UPDATE (11/06/2018): Amendment 2 passes, ending the Jim Crow-era practice of allowing felony convictions without a unanimous jury. Louisiana was one of the last two states in the country to require only 10 of 12 jurors to convict in felony cases. More than 40 percent of all those who have been recently exonerated of crimes in Louisiana were found guilty by non-unanimous juries.

As the crowd began descending on the packed pavilion in Congo Square in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, it was hard to ignore the expressions of hope and enthusiasm on each of the participants’ faces as they gathered on Saturday before heading to the polls to kick off early voting in Louisiana.

At the front of the line of about 100 marchers stood Norris Henderson, the co-founder and executive director of the grassroots group Voices of the Experienced, proudly holding a sign that read “Vote Yes on 2.”

Norris spent 27 years in Angola State Prison for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted by a non-unanimous jury. He was there on Saturday to help Louisiana liberate itself from its century-old racist jury system, which has deep roots in Jim Crow, by encouraging the community to vote. His life’s work has been fighting the injustices of the criminal justice system and he has been on the frontlines ushering in many of the reforms the state has adopted in the last couple of years. “There is no reform more important or more impactful to attack mass incarceration in this state than Amendment 2!” he proclaimed to the crowd.

Louisiana is one of only two states (the other being Oregon) that does not require a unanimous jury of 12 members to deprive someone of their freedom in felony cases. That means that two jurors can believe that a person is innocent and yet that person will still go to prison in direct contradiction of the standard burden of proof in all criminal cases — beyond a reasonable doubt. Even worse, Louisiana is the only state in the country where someone can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole without a unanimous jury.

This law has its roots in slavery and took its current form during the Jim Crow era, when white supremacists wanted to increase the supply of free prison labor and nullify the voting power of black jurors. It has led to numerous wrongful convictions and has put pressure on many people, especially African Americans, to take plea deals in the hopes of getting more lenient sentences than they would get if they went to trial and were convicted of a felony by a jury that does not look them.

More than 40 percent of all those who have been recently exonerated of crimes in Louisiana were found guilty by non-unanimous juries.

But now, for the first time in over a century, Louisianans have the opportunity to change this archaic law next Tuesday and ensure that residents have the same protection of right that exists in 48 other states and federal courts. Voting Yes on Amendment 2 would require all 12 jurors to agree on a person’s guilt in order to convict.

The crowd out on the streets on Saturday was palpably excited about the possibility of Louisiana shedding its roots from this Jim Crow-era jury system. It included people of all ages, races, and walks of life, chanting phrases of change and hope. They created their own renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” replacing “saints” with “juries.”

This level of enthusiasm and support tracks with what we’re seeing statewide, and it has been led by individuals like Norris Henderson who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system and are now helping lead the movement to transform it.

Since passing through the State Legislature last spring to secure its place on the ballot, Amendment 2 has garnered significant bipartisan support. It has received endorsements from both major state political parties; social, civil rights, and faith organizations; prominent law enforcement officials; district attorneys across the state; public defender associations; and, most importantly, the general public.

The community is the driving force behind this movement to end this Jim Crow-era law. If you walk down any major street in New Orleans, you would be hard pressed to go a mile without seeing a Yes on 2 yard sign in someone’s yard or business. Yes on 2 has been spearheaded by State Senator JP Morrell and the Unanimous Jury Coalition, consisting of champions of justice like the ACLU-LA, VOTE, SPLC and many others.

The coalition has offices in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport. Because of the hard work of faithful volunteers, the coalition continues to exceed its weekly goals of educating the community and turning out voters.

Amendment 2 is also getting national attention. Recently, celebrities such as New Orleans Saints’ Linebacker Demario Davis and Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer John Legend joined the fight to require unanimous juries.

Louisiana has made great strides in the last couple of years to fix its criminal justice system and reduce the prison population. Passing Amendment 2 would aid that goal. Unanimous juries should matter to all Louisianans. When the voice of every juror counts, it strengthens our judicial branch and provides checks and balances for a fair criminal justice system.

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