BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana is a step closer to striking a Jim Crow-era law that allows divided juries to settle criminal cases.
The House criminal justice committee voted Wednesday to advance a constitutional amendment to require unanimous verdicts in serious felony cases.
Louisiana trials, including some murder cases, can be resolved when 10 out of 12 jurors agree on a person's guilt. Even Oregon, the only other state in the country to allow split verdicts in felony cases, requires a unanimous verdict in murder cases.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the bill , said he traced the jury policy to an 1898 constitutional convention where lawmakers were trying to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War.
"This is like the vestigial tail of some prehistoric creature that we need to just chop off," he said. "We are beyond this as a state."
Two prosecutors spoke in opposition to the bill, arguing that it is sometimes hard to get all 12 jurors to agree and said that there's no data to show that the current system results in injustice. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association has taken a neutral stance on the proposal but allows prosecutors to take individual positions.
It is difficult to gauge how many people have been imprisoned in Louisiana on split decisions, as not all prosecutors in the state maintain information on how juries vote. An analysis by The Advocate newspaper of felony trials over six years showed that 40 percent of 993 convictions came from split juries.
John DeRosier, district attorney in Calcasieu Parish, told the panel that the law's roots in white supremacy aren't a good enough reason to change anything.
"I've heard a lot about this system begin adopted as a vestige of slavery. I have no reason to doubt that. I'm not proud of that, that that's the way it started, but it is what it is," he said.
After the opponents testified, Rep. Ted James, an African-American lawmaker on the committee, took issue with DeRosier's words.
"You are elected to represent everybody," he told DeRosier, "and to admit that it started in slavery and say 'it is what it is,' I hope that the people of your parish are listening. And if they aren't I'm going to make sure that they know what you said today. I am utterly offended."
"I'm bubbling right now," James said. A round of applause followed his comments.
Morrell's measure passed the Senate by a single vote over the two-thirds margin needed to advance constitutional amendments through the Legislature. If successful in the full House, the proposal would go before voters in the fall.
Senate Bill 243: www.legis.la.gov