BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — An effort to offer a possible path to release for an estimated 1,500 prisoners in Louisiana convicted of felonies by juries that were not unanimous was blocked Thursday by lawmakers on a House committee.
Only five lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee supported the proposal by Rep. Randal Gaines, a Democrat from LaPlace. Seven committee members voted against it. Gaines’ bill called for people serving a sentence that stems from a non-unanimous jury decision to be allowed to seek new trials.
Criminal justice advocates pushed the measure after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in mid-May that prisoners convicted by non-unanimous juries before the court banned the practice in 2020 didn’t need to be retried. That left about 1,500 felons convicted by a 10- or 11-member majority of a jury in prison, many of them serving life sentences without the chance of parole.
“Our system has buckled under decades of injustice. Louisiana lawmakers now have the obligation to repair the wounds inflicted by generations of Jim Crow,” said Jamila Johnson, a lawyer for the New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative.
Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury requirement is a vestige of white supremacy that made it easier to convict Black people. Oregon was the only other state with a similar law. Voters in Louisiana approved a constitutional change that outlawed non-unanimous jury verdicts starting in 2019, after critics of the practice cited racial disparities in verdicts and pointed out the roots of the law.
But while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that non-unanimous verdicts were unconstitutional, it decided earlier this month that the decision wouldn’t be retroactive to cover those convicted felons who remain in prison under non-unanimous jury verdicts.
Several former inmates spoke in support of Gaines’ legislation Thursday.
“We can go forward and heal from a Jim Crow law that did all this harm,” said Jermaine Hudson, who was released from prison in March after serving 22 years on a nonunanimous jury conviction, after the witness who accused Hudson recanted.
The district attorneys’ association opposed the measure, but didn’t speak at Thursday’s hearing. Critics have raised concerns about the clogging up the court system with new trials and about prosecutors having difficulty being able to retry cases for serious crimes that happened years ago.
The bill is filed as House Bill 346.
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Melinda Deslatte, The Associated Press