Update: Outdated Laws in Louisiana and Oregon Challenged in Court
Constitutional scholars have widely agreed that a provision in the Louisiana state constitution allowing non-unanimous jury decisions unless the case concerns the death penalty is largely a product of institutional racism, meant to limit the effectiveness of minority opinions in a jury and originally written to increase the number of convictions of black Americans in the post-Reconstruction era.
In July of 2018, a hearing was finally held in the Louisiana district court addressing the potential unconstitutionality of the statute. The evidence submitted included testimony from a New Orleans based investigative journalist, John Simerman, who presented extensive research on the subject.
Thomas Aiello, an associate professor of history and African American studies, also testified regarding the historical context of the law, demonstrating the way that an ostensibly race-neutral law was adopted to replicate the racist environment of the post-Reconstruction South.
District Judge Stephen Beasley accepted Aiello’s testimony and wrote in his decision that the non-unanimous jury system was unequivocally motivated by prejudice.
Noting that an African American juror was 250% more likely to cast a vote with no impact on the jury’s decision than a white juror, the court established that the law was not only conceived with racial motivations, but also that the tangible effects disadvantage black jurors.
On Nov. 6, Louisiana voters will vote on Constitutional Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that would repeal the controversial law and require unanimous verdicts for such convictions.
In the only other state that does not require unanimous jury verdicts, an Oregon state court of appeals is also re-evaluating the troubling history and results of non-unanimous jury convictions. In this case, the defendant’s attorneys are arguing he was deprived of a trial by a jury of his peers because this system allows minority jurors to be systematically ignored. Despite the fact that these laws were most likely formulated because of rising anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiment at the time, the present application of the law adversely affects all minority defendants. This situation will continue to develop as the court of appeals deliberates on this case.