Louisiana has a lot of good things it’s known for—Jazz music, Cajun culture and incredible Southern food—so it’s a shameful fact that the state is also known to have one of the highest wrongful conviction rates per capita. There are many reasons for this, but the state government’s long-time “split jury verdict” practice—where an individual could go to prison even if two jurors questioned their guilt—has contributed to this problem. Courts have already found 10 individuals convicted by a split jury to be innocent, and the New Orleans District Attorney has vacated an additional 22 convictions.

While split jury verdicts officially ended in Louisiana in 2018—and the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed this as a violation of the Sixth Amendment in 2020—there are still 1,500 individuals in prison due to this unconstitutional practice. Consider that, in each one of these individuals’ cases, there were at least two jurors who believed there was reasonable doubt of the individual’s guilt. Given the state government’s track record on wrongful convictions, these individuals deserve a new day in court.

Luckily, there is proposed legislation that could give these individuals their constitutional right to a fair trial. Just recently, two lawmakers pre-filed bills to bring justice to these 1,500 Louisianans. One bill provides a direct path to post-conviction relief, and the other creates a board to review the cases for potential post-conviction relief. Post-conviction relief can take many forms, such as a new trial, reduction in sentence or vacation of the conviction. These bills present an opportunity for the Louisiana legislature to clean up this insult to our Constitution and to potentially rectify more wrongful convictions.

Lawmakers have tried in previous years to create an avenue to get a fair trial for the 1,500 individuals who had already been convicted. Unfortunately, a 2021 bill that would have created a process for these individuals to get a retrial didn’t move past committee. Now, since the legislature has been unable to agree on a path forward, confusion and inconsistencies between the different Louisiana courts and district attorneys is running rampant.

Where one court vacates a split jury conviction, another court denies it or declines to rule on it altogether. Hundreds of cases remain pending in Louisiana state appellate courts, with no clear direction for judges on how to rule. And while the Louisiana Supreme Court has finally granted a review of one such case, it is unclear how the court will interpret precedent or how long the court will take to give their opinion. Likewise, district attorneys are at odds with whether or not to individually review these unconstitutional split jury verdict cases. At this point, it seems that thescoulde individuals’ constitutional right to a fair trial depends on luck rather than on the rule of law.

While there may be concerns about the availability of evidence or resources to retry cases, it would be wise of lawmakers to heed the words of the late Justice Scalia who said: “The Framers would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of [. . .] his liberty, the State should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting its accusation to ‘the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbours. . .’” [sic]. The current Louisiana legislature cannot let the bureaucratic inconsistency and inactivity of the other governmental branches continue to infringe on the life and freedom of their constituents.

Louisianans deserve better. It is as simple as this: the government may not imprison its people in flagrant violation of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Now is the time for Louisiana legislators to right this past unconstitutional wrong by allowing nothing to stand in the way of due process of law and these 1,500 individuals’ right to a fair trial.

Image: buttbongo

Featured Publications