'People laugh at us over this': Louisiana House panel advances bill striking Jim Crow-era jury rule

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana is on course to possibly reverse a century-old law, rooted in the Jim Crow Era.

A bill by Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, would require unanimous juries in felony cases. Currently, only 10 out of 12 jurors need to agree for someone to be convicted of a felony.

"People laugh at us over this because it's so ridiculous and so backward," Morrell told a House panel Wednesday.

Louisiana is just one of two states that allows someone to be sent to prison even if the jury is split. Oregon is the other state. Louisiana adopted the rule in the late 19th century, when African Americans first had a chance to sit on juries.

"It was a way of making it easier to convict an African American person, because if one or two or three African Americans were on a jury, then their votes would be essentially not counted," said Ed Tarpley, an attorney from Alexandria and former district attorney for Grant Parish.

Now, an effort is underway at the state capitol to change the rule. Without objection, a House panel advanced Morrell's bill Wednesday requiring unanimous juries in all cases. The bill has already cleared the Senate.

Despite its racially-charged history, a handful of district attorneys defended the current practice, saying it can at times be difficult to convince everyone on the jury to agree. "I'm not proud of that, that that's the way it started, but it is what it is," said John DeRosier, district attorney for Calcasieu Parish.

That did not sit well with some lawmakers, who argued the ease of getting a conviction should not come before justice. "To admit that it started in slavery and say, 'It is what it is.' I hope the people of your parish are listening, and if they aren't, I'm going to make sure they know what you said today. I am utterly offended," said Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.

Louisiana already mandates that jurors all must agree to verdicts for lower-level crimes and the death penalty.

"You don't want juries that rubber-stamp stuff. You want juries that fight and make a determination before they take away someone's liberty," Morrell argued.

The bill now heads to the full House for consideration. It's a constitutional amendment, meaning the change would only be enacted if it's approved by a vote of the people.

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