John Legend, a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer, is founder of FreeAmerica, a criminal-justice reform advocacy group.
It’s been a year since I traveled to Baton Rouge to support a series of reforms to reduce the incarceration rate in Louisiana. Many of those reforms — such as the overhaul of the state’s parole system and modifications to sentencing for less serious offenses — have already proved effective.
But the work is far from over. Still lingering in the state’s constitution is a 120-year-old measure put in place to suppress the rights of African Americans: non-unanimous juries.
Louisiana is one of only two states — the other is Oregon — in which a person can be convicted of a felony and sent to prison without a unanimous vote of the jury. As a result, Louisiana prosecutors do not truly have the burden of proving their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” They only need to persuade 10 of 12 jurors to send a defendant to prison, even for life.
The result? A state justice system in which felony trials are held without the full participation of African Americans.
Here’s why: During Louisiana’s all-white constitutional convention in 1898, delegates passed a series of measures specifically designed to “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.” Non-unanimous juries were one of those measures, and the intent was clear: If the federal Constitution required that African Americans be allowed to serve on juries, the state constitution would make sure that minority votes could be discounted.
In a review of nearly 1,000 felony trials in the state, the New Orleans Advocate determined that 40 percent of jury verdicts were not unanimous. They also found that the combination of prosecutorial strikes of African American jurors and the 10-2 jury rule has sharply diminished the participation of African American jurors. It’s hard to have faith in a criminal-justice system that treats members of the community differently based on race.
Take Kia Stewart, an African American man who was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. At 17, Stewart was found guilty based on an anonymous tip, the testimony of a single mistaken eyewitness and a 10-2 jury decision. Of the two jurors who refused to convict, at least one was black. Stewart was exonerated and released after spending 10 years in prison once the Innocence Project New Orleans found 18 witnesses who either saw the crime and confirmed Stewart was not the shooter, heard the real perpetrator confess or proved Stewart’s alibi.
We are at a crossroads, with an opportunity to right this long-standing wrong. This year, the Louisiana legislature is putting a question on the November ballot asking voters whether they support a constitutional amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts in all criminal cases starting next year. Come November, voters will have the opportunity to strike down the discriminatory rule and uphold justice for all.
The ballot question is entirely nonpartisan. The Louisiana Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties have all endorsed the passage of a constitutional amendment requiring jury votes to be unanimous. Even so, powerful forces in the state are resistant to change, with some district attorneys fighting to hold on to the jury rule because it makes it easier for prosecutors to get convictions.
Now, after 120 years of this oppressive rule, people are canvassing door to door and phone banking to explain to voters how Louisiana’s jury rule undermines the presumption of innocence and runs counter to 48 other states and the federal government.
The reforms passed after my trip to Baton Rouge have already pushed Louisiana from being the nation’s leader in incarceration to the No. 2 spot. I urge Louisiana voters to continue this downward trajectory. Ending the 10-2 jury rule in Louisiana will not solve the issue of mass incarceration or dismantle white supremacy, but it will deal a significant blow to both.
It’s time to come together, reject prejudice in all its forms and build a future in which everyone is valued and supported. The 1898 constitutional convention was about denying voice to the expression of all of Louisiana’s citizens. This ballot question in November is about giving Louisiana her voice back.