Supreme Court To Decide On Whether Incarcerated People Convicted By Jim Crow Juries Deserve Retrial
Lawyers are arguing that hundreds of people in Louisiana and Oregon need to be retried because many were sentenced on non-unanimous jury convictions.
December 02, 2020 at 8:29 pm
The Supreme Court will hear a case on Wednesday addressing whether hundreds of people sentenced on non-unanimous jury convictions in Louisiana and Oregon deserve new trials.
Courtroom dramas are known to depict cases where juries spend hours debating and fighting before reaching a unanimous decision. This misrepresentation leads people to believe that all jury decisions must be unanimous, but that is not the case in all states.
The Promise of Justice Initiative released a report last month showing that more than 1,500 people are still incarcerated on the basis of non-unanimous jury verdicts. The group found that 80% are Black and most are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
The group's study discovered that in 84% of the cases, more than an hour of deliberation could not resolve the reasonable doubts of the dissenting jurors.
“The non-unanimous jury rule was created by white supremacists to oppress and imprison Black people, and that was exactly their result,” said Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at the Promise of Justice Initiative.
“Our analysis confirms that Black people represent the overwhelming share of people still serving these sentences, and that most are serving life without the possibility of parole. Jim Crow juries are a stain on our criminal legal system that continues to destroy lives and keep families apart. We will not stand by while people who were denied fair trials by a racist and unconstitutional practice continue to languish behind bars,” Johnson said.
CBS News spoke with lawyers for 44-year-old Jerome Morgan who was convicted on a second-degree murder charge in 1994 when he was 17.
Morgan was at a birthday party in New Orleans in 1993 when someone fired shots into a crowd. Morgan rushed to save a person who eventually testified in his trial, according to CBS News. Yet, Morgan was eventually convicted for the death of a 16-year-old who attended the party.
In Morgan's trial, the only two Black members of the jury voted against convicting him of the second-degree murder charge. Even though the two said Morgan should be acquitted, Louisiana allowed the conviction to go through because the 10 other white jurors voted in favor of the charge.
More than 20 years later, the Innocence Project New Orleans proved those two Black jurors right, finding evidence that exonerated Morgan.
"Had that law been corrected back in 1993, I would've never got convicted and ended up wasting 20 years of my life. We have a lot of racist laws here in Louisiana that should have been corrected long ago and it burns at you," Morgan told CBS News.
While Morgan is not involved in the case being heard on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will focus generally on whether hundreds of people in Louisiana and Oregon will have the right to a new trial because the two states are the last to allow non-unanimous jury convictions.
CBS News noted that in April, the Supreme Court heard a case about felony convictions based on non-unanimous juries and ruled that they are in direct violation of the Sixth Amendment.
Multiple conservative justices sided with liberals in the 6-3 ruling, with Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch bashing the non-unanimous jury laws in Louisiana. He said the state's laws effectively made Black juror service "meaningless," because they could be overruled by white jurors.
"To state the point in simple terms: Why stick by an erroneous precedent that is egregiously wrong as a matter of constitutional law, that allows convictions of some who would not be convicted under the proper constitutional rule, and that tolerates and reinforces a practice that is thoroughly racist in its origins and has continuing racially discriminatory effects," Kavanaugh wrote.
The New Orleans Advocate explained in a lengthy feature article that Louisiana's non-unanimous jury laws were enacted as part of a plot to essentially reinstate slavery in 1898.
According to the newspaper, during a state constitutional convention that year, delegates explicitly stated that they wanted to "establish the supremacy of the white race in this State to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done."
Johnson told CBS News that the laws allowed the state to convict Black people for crimes like not having a house or not having a job, which led to thousands being put into prison labor camps.
CBS News noted that Oregon's non-unanimous jury laws relate back to the controversial 1934 trial that involved a Jewish suspect. Local news outlets stoked anti-Semitic hatred and outrage about the trial, but things got worse when the jury in the person's case was deadlocked.
As more Oregon citizens embraced groups like the KKK, legislators changed the state's laws to address the jury deadlock, allowing people to be convicted by a 10-2 vote.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will mull over whether to allow the ruling in the April case to apply retroactively to all those convicted by non-unanimous juries.
Some want cases retried while others want their convictions thrown out entirely. Both Oregon and Louisiana are fighting against any retroactive changes to sentences, highlighting the most egregious cases and saying it could allow rapists and murderers out of prison.
"As a practical matter, retrying this older category of cases would be challenging and in some cases impossible, given the need for testimony and evidence from cases that were tried years—or even decades—ago," Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement to CBS News.
CBS News also spoke to advocates who noted that about 100 of the people convicted by non-unanimous juries were children during their trials.
"It's not about walking out the door — they just want a fair trial. For us advocates, that's all we've ever argued for — nobody should have an unconstitutional trial that's so based in racism and discrimination. It's just so wrong," said Aliza Kaplan, director of the criminal justice reform clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School.