Jurors are heroes. They are the people who answered the call of jury duty. They chose to support our justice system when others made excuses to get out of jury duty. When these unsung heroes willingly report for jury duty and carefully listen to the testimony, evidence and arguments, all of their beliefs and viewpoints should be equally considered and weighed. Each of the juror’s life experiences, wisdom, thoughts, and feelings benefits the jury as a whole. The resulting verdict reflects the collective wisdom and knowledge of all twelve of the jurors.
However, in Louisiana, this process does not happen. Rather, it is just a numbers game. When the first ten jurors make a decision, the case is over. It frankly does not matter what the others have to say, how they feel, what they saw or heard, or how and why they disagree with the other jurors. The result of this “first to ten” means some mother’s child, or spouse or parent will go to prison. But, due to another bad law in Louisiana, the jurors are not to be told of the prison sentence and, as such, have no idea of the consequences of their decision.
How did all of this begin? After the Civil War, Louisiana created the non-unanimous jury verdict where only 10 out of the 12 jurors could vote to convict. When the Civil War ended, plantation owners were in dire need of a certain type of agricultural worker who would work without pay. The politicians wanted to help the wealthy plantation owners by increasing the prison population. With a hefty prison population, Louisiana would lease the prisoners to the plantations. This was called, “convict leasing.” The State of Louisiana made revenue from the lease and saved money by not housing and feeding the prisoners. The politicians were happy because their wealthy constituents were pleased with a supply of cheap workers.
But, Louisiana’s scheme of convict leasing encountered a problem. The juries made up of the good people of Louisiana were not willing to freely convict people of crimes and send them to prison without a strong case. When juries were not convicting people and damning them to prison on a large enough scale, the bureaucrats hastened to increase the prison population to lease to their wealthy constituents. To address this “problem,” the politicians necessary to reduce the number of votes needed to convict. They blew a political dog-whistle and convinced the citizens of Louisiana to abandon unanimous verdicts in favor of a non-unanimous jury system. The Louisiana Constitution was re-written and, just like that, the politicians changed the meaning of “justice.” The immediate and long-term result: Louisiana leads the world in incarceration rates.
The government has taken full advantage of the non-unanimous jury system. Louisiana imprisons more people per capita than Iran, China or any other State in the Union. Sadly, the non-unanimous jury system has led to a number of wrongful convictions, where innocent people were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. As of 2017, about 22.44% of all exonerations were done with a non-unanimous jury verdict. Keep in mind this percentage is limited to known cases, where significant evidence survived the test of time. These cases do not include the poor souls who died in prison, finished a sentence before the prisoner developed a case after the trial or could not afford to continue to fight and pay for lawyers, scientists, investigators and all the other expenses associated with such cases.
I suspect someone may argue “22% isn’t high enough to change our system.” In response to that argument, please consider what you would do if “just 22%” of aspirin in the bottle of aspirin contained a fatal dose of arsenic. You would immediately throw the bottle away and remove it from your household. You would not argue, “only 22% of them are poisonous.” You and your family would not take any aspirin from this bottle. Under this circumstance, none of us would accept this known risk. If this probability is not safe enough for us and our families, it is not safe enough to expect others and their families to endure it in a jury trial.
When I have a serious problem or an important decision, I ask people for their advice. I suspect we all do at some level. Why do we ask people for advice? Generally, we want the benefit of that person’s life experience, knowledge, wisdom and problem-solving skills. Usually, the bigger the problem or decision, the more people we call on to provide advice. While it is true we do not always accept the advice, we at least know why following careful deliberation. This process is much different from not listening to people and deliberating about it once you get a certain number of answers. To do so precludes the possibility the next answer could be the very best one.
I believe we can trust our neighbors to reach a fair jury verdict. They are in a much better position to reach a verdict after they see the evidence and hear he testimony. Certainly, they are in a better position to make a decision their position is much better than bureaucrats in Baton Rouge who determined they should stop listening to each other after number 10. These bureaucrats have not heard a single witness, they did not look into the eyes of the witnesses, they do not have any idea what the case is about, and they do not know what is at stake. But, in their ignorance, they believe jurors should stop listening once they reach number 10. They believe it simply does not matter what the remaining jurors have to offer, have to say or how they feel. In sum, politicians have decided how outcome will be reached even though they are clueless about the case, the evidence, testimony and the jurors.
Beyond of the immediate concerns of the non-unanimous jury verdict, there is a more personal and painful concern. That concern is how jurors will feel when it is learned they voted to damn someone to prison and they were wrong. They will be haunted by seeing the bailiff put shackles on an innocent person, who is dragged away and thrown in a rusted and filthy cage. They will be haunted by the tears of this poor soul’s parents, spouse or children. We will be haunted by the face of the accused, who was mortified when he heard the verdict. Then they will feel responsibility for taking years from his person’s life and all of the humiliation it caused his family. When it turns out this person was innocent, but 10 jurors decided to convict, it will be the jurors who carry the emotional burden for life. They will experience the very guilt the government wanted them to find. The bureaucrats will not shoulder his burden nor will they accept any blame. They will be tucked away in the safety of some fancy office or home, and they will mock the jurors for having “made the wrong decision” and “got it wrong.” Politicians call this “plausible deniability” and it is a luxury normal people do not have in our lives.
Yet, there is even more pain for the exoneree, who lost the most. While it is true this person is released from prison and it would appear the harm is over, this is just an illusion. When this person was locked away, he was not able to pursue his career, obtain on the job training or formal education. He did not watch his family grow. He did not attend school plays, kindergarten or high school graduation, he did not see his son go to prom, or his daughter’s wedding. He missed the treasured memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most horrid, he experienced and endured unspeakable events in prison. Such an experience with the failure of the criminal justice system erodes any respect for it and law enforcement. All of this leaves scars on a soul. These scars do not fade when the innocent person walks out of prison.
There are only 2 winners in this tragedy- the government and private prison corporations. The State of Louisiana wins because it can more easily convict us and send us to prison. This occurs whether someone is innocent or guilty. The other winner is the private prison industry, such as the Corrections Corporation of American. In Louisiana, prison is a big business. To feed this business, there must be a healthy population of prisoners because prisons are paid a daily fee for each inmate. The more inmates, the more money. To get more inmates, the government is banking on its ability to obtain easily convictions. This is accomplished with non-unanimous jury verdicts and a host of other tools, such as mandatory sentences, laws not allowing juries to know criminal sentences, under-funding public defense systems and over-funding prosecution agencies. Liberty or the lack of it should not be for sale. Freedom is not a commodity.
In November of 2018, the people of Louisiana will have a say in how our jury system will work. We have the ability to change the Louisiana Constitution and require unanimous jury verdicts. Vote “yes” to Ballot Number 2. When you do, we can end the notion of “close enough for government work” in our juries. Juries will be a shield for innocent people and they will protect us from a mindless law that was designed for the powerful and against the powerless.