In April 2015, Kia Stewart walked out of prison a free man. He had originally been convicted of second-degree murder by a 10-2 jury decision and sentenced to life without parole. However, his conviction was overturned because it was based on mistaken eyewitness testimony and an inadequate defense counsel. In fact, his attorney neglected to call any of the 18 witnesses to the stand who could have affirmed that Stewart wasn’t the killer.

Regrettably, Stewart’s case is not uncommon. Wrongful convictions occur all too frequently in Louisiana. Due to an unusual state law, in most felony cases, only 10 of 12 jurors are required to concur to convict a defendant. This is enshrined in the state’s constitution, thanks to an 1898 proposal that was likely designed to marginalize minority jurors. Since then, it has permitted an unacceptable degree of error.

In response to this provision, state Sens. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, and Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, introduced Senate Bill 243 to end this practice. It already passed the Senate, and if it passes the House with two-thirds support, Louisianans could vote to amend the state constitution to require unanimous juries for all criminal convictions. Considering the unacceptable degree of error that the provision allows, all Louisianans ought to embrace it.

The truth is that Louisiana has the lowest bar for felony convictions in the United States, and this standard is likely contributing to Louisiana’s poor record on overturned convictions. New Orleans has the highest rate of exonerations per capita of any locale in the country, and the state ranks among the top 10 with the most exonerations. Of the 49 people discovered to have been wrongly convicted in Louisiana since 1990, 11 were convicted by nonunanimous juries. Louisiana’s low bar clearly was at play in these cases.

A cornerstone of American criminal jurisprudence is requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict defendants. How can this level of certainty be met if two jurors dissent? When there is disagreement among jurors, reasonable doubt appears to exist, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury policy. By not mandating unanimity, Louisiana is fostering an environment ripe for wrongful convictions, which can steal decades from the wrongly convicted.

In addition to ruining lives and seeming to contradict a bedrock of American criminal jurisprudence, Louisiana’s law lacks parity with its own jury system and those of other states. The Louisiana constitution requires juries to be unanimous in misdemeanor cases but strangely not in most felony trials. There’s simply no valid justification for requiring a higher level of certainty in petty criminal cases than in felony proceedings, where the stakes are far higher.

Moreover, the federal government and all other states — with the exception of Oregon — mandate that felony trial juries be unanimous to convict. But even Oregon has a higher standard than Louisiana. Oregon requires an 11-1 vote to convict in certain proceedings. However, unlike Louisiana, the state mandates that jury decisions be unanimous in life-without-parole trials. The Pelican State is thus an outlier in this respect. Given Louisiana’s exoneration rate, being an outlier is not something for which Louisianans should be proud.

Morrell and Carter’s bill has faced relatively minimal opposition thus far. The only real criticism it has received emerged during the committee hearing, when some suggested that the bill might make it harder for prosecutors to convict the accused in certain cases.

Since 48 other states and the federal government require jury unanimity in felony trials and have little trouble convicting the accused, this is unlikely to become a serious issue. However, if this measure does make it a little more difficult for some prosecutors, that’s not exactly a catastrophic result. Given Louisiana’s concerning exoneration rate, it may be too easy for Louisiana prosecutors to obtain convictions. Requiring a little more elbow grease from publicly funded prosecutors to ensure that fewer innocent people are erroneously convicted is an outcome that most Louisianans would support.

Individuals like Kia Stewart deserve better than what they have received — wrongful convictions and losses of years of freedom. But that is a predictable outcome of Louisiana’s misguided jury policy. Senate Bill 243 promises to address these deficiencies, but there are still many hurdles that it must clear before amending the state constitution. Until then, lawmakers should focus on shepherding this proposal through the Legislature and placing the final decision in the people’s hands.

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