By David Jacobs | The Center Square
(The Center Square) – A Louisiana House committee turned back an attempt Thursday to grant new trials to prisoners convicted by nonunanimous juries.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such convictions unconstitutional. In a separate ruling, the court said states were not required to offer new trials to prisoners convicted under the old standard, though states are free to come up with their own remedies.
Louisiana and Oregon were the last states to allow criminal convictions by juries that were not all in agreement. Louisiana first endorsed nonunanimous verdicts at a state constitutional convention in 1898. One committee chairman said the convention’s purpose was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.”
Louisiana long allowed convictions with 9-3 verdicts, moving to a 10-2 standard after the 1973 constitutional convention. Louisiana voters amended the state constitution in 2018 to require unanimous verdicts, but that change didn’t apply to old convictions.
“Justice should be applied universally,” said Rep. Randal Gaines, a LaPlace Democrat and the author of House Bill 346.
Gaines argued it was unfair, inconsistent and illogical to not allow new trials for the approximately 1,500 Louisiana prisoners convicted under a “tainted law.” Criminal justice advocates and former prisoners said it allowed for questionable convictions, sometimes with little evidence.
“We have real concerns about the accuracy of these convictions,” Jamila Johnson with the Promise of Justice Initiative said.
District attorneys turned in red cards indicating opposition to the bill but did not testify Thursday. In a previous interview, Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, raised concerns about a flood of new cases putting a strain on courts and about trying old cases with evidence that is years, if not decades, old.
“District attorneys are concerned about assuring justice is done on both sides of the equation, both for the defendant and for the victim and the victim’s family as well,” Lampert told The Center Square. “To ignore [the victim’s] side of the equation is to deny justice as well.”
The House Judiciary Committee rejected the bill, 7-5.
Attorney General Jeff Landry applauded the Supreme Court’s decision not to grant new trials for prisoners convicted under the old rules, saying it ensured victims get the justice they were promised. Landry quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said that once a criminal defendant has had a trial and a round of appeals, and the state applied the law as it was currently understood, a defendant does not have the right to “continue to litigate his claims indefinitely in hopes that [the Supreme Court] will one day have a change of heart.”