BATON ROUGE, La. — A Jim Crow-era law that lets divided juries decide criminal cases in Louisiana could be relegated to the history books in November.
The state Senate on Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment that would bring Louisiana in line with nearly the rest of the nation in requiring that a jury reach a unanimous verdict before convicting a person. The proposal, once seen as a long shot, is now heading to a public vote.
"This is the moment for people to declare what they want the world to know about Louisiana," said Angela Allen-Bell, an associate professor at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge. "This is a historic moment, and people need to understand that we have a role to play in writing the next chapter of history."
Currently, serious felony trials in Louisiana, 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 trials.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the bill, traced the split-jury policy back to a constitutional convention in 1898 and said it was part of longstanding efforts to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War. He previously described the law as "the vestigial tail of some prehistoric creature that we need to just chop off."
Still, the bill faced opposition from some district attorneys, who often hold sway over lawmakers. They argued 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. One district attorney, in a statement that drew swift backlash, told lawmakers that the policy's roots in white supremacy aren't a reason to change anything.
It is hard to tell how many people have been imprisoned in Louisiana on split decisions, as not all prosecutors in the state maintain information on how juries vote. Though an analysis from The New Orleans Advocate newspaper of felony trials over six years showed that 40 percent of 993 convictions came from split juries.
Last month, the proposal cleared the Senate with one vote more than the two-thirds needed to pass a constitutional amendment. But as the bill moved forward, an unlikely coalition in the GOP-controlled legislature was formed as conservative lawmakers and groups began to get behind the measure.
The president of the powerful Christian organization Louisiana Family Forum published a blog post supporting the proposal. "LFF is often opposed philosophically to Sen J.P. Morrell's bills, however, on this issue, he is correct to right the mistake enacted 138 years ago," wrote Gene Mills. Rep. Sherman Mack, an influential Republican who chairs a criminal justice committee, carried the bill for Morrell in the House and told his counterparts to approve it because it was the right thing to do. The proposal passed the House by a wide margin Monday.
"Very seldom do we have something of this magnitude, this historic, that has enjoyed such bipartisan support," Morrell said Tuesday as the Senate, approving minor tweaks to the bill, gave it final passage by a vote of 28-7.
Ed Tarpley, a former district attorney who lobbied hard in favor of the bill, said the state is on the verge of righting a wrong that's existed for far too long.
"This sends a monumental message to the entire nation that Louisiana is on the right track," he said.