A constitutional amendment to end non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana was approved Tuesday by the state’s voters — a victory for a rare alliance of conservative and progressive organizations that got behind the measure to end a practice with roots in post-Civil War racism.
The amendment takes effect Jan. 1, 2019 and will leave Oregon as the only other state allowing split verdicts. It reverses a Jim Crow-era practice that made it easier to imprison non-whites by allowing as few as 10 members of a 12-member jury to convict defendants in felony cases not involving death sentences.
The amendment was pushed through the Louisiana Legislature by Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat. It received more than the necessary two-thirds approval in the House and Senate and drew strong support from factions rarely on the same page: On the right, supporters included the Christian conservative Louisiana Family Forum and the Koch Brother’s political organization Americans for Prosperity; On the left, supporters included the American Civil Liberties Union and Innocence Project New Orleans.
Supporters of the change noted the wide-ranging support the measure received as they celebrated their victory Tuesday.
“We have shown the nation that the people they are used to seeing fight against each other will come together for the common cause of freedom. That we will fight side by side for the liberty of our neighbors,” said Norris Henderson, state director of the Unanimous Jury Coalition.
Some district attorneys and their supporters in the Legislature opposed the measure, not wanting to make prosecutors’ jobs more challenging. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association stayed neutral, and district attorneys supporting the measure included Hillar Moore III in Baton Rouge, James Stewart in Caddo Parish, Keith Stutes in Lafayette and Paul Connick of Jefferson Parish.
Ed Tarpley, former district attorney in Grant Parish, championed the amendment.
“Once you know the history of this law, then you have to vote to repeal it,” Tarpley told The Press Club of Baton Rouge in July. “This is something that is a stain on the legacy of our state.”
But a racist legacy wasn’t the only reason supporters sought to overturn non-unanimous verdicts. There was also a view shared by those across the political spectrum that government doesn’t always get things right.