BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - If the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a prior decision and bans non-unanimous jury convictions, Louisiana prosecutors say they may have to retry thousands of cases or let some inmates out of prison.
On Monday, Mar. 18, the high court agreed to hear arguments from a Louisiana man who was convicted, 10 to 2, of second degree murder in 2016. Evangelisto Ramos was sentenced to life without parole for killing a woman and stuffing her body in a garbage can in New Orleans on Thanksgiving eve in 2014.
But Ramos’ attorneys argue the evidence for his conviction was circumstantial, and they now want the Supreme Court to decide if states can uphold non-unanimous convictions for people who are still appealing their conviction.
In 1972, the court ruled that federal juries must be unanimous in their convictions, but allowed states to decide if they would play by the same rules. Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed split jury decisions before Louisiana voters overwhelmingly amended the state’s constitution in November of 2018 to ban the practice.
“There are thousands of people who had been convicted in Louisiana under a system that had previously been upheld by the Supreme Court,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said in an interview with WAFB Tuesday. “You would basically have to retry all these cases, for which witnesses may be gone and people involved may be deceased. It’s problematic.”
Landry will likely lead the arguments on behalf of the state when the court hears the case in the fall. He says he plans to argue that Louisiana was enforcing a law the Supreme Court had upheld before and it doesn’t make sense to force re-litigation based on a new opinion for a law that no longer exists.
“We’ll defend the state’s laws as they were at that time and we’ll see what the Supreme Court says,” he said. “We stand on their own precedent.”
It’s unclear how many people have been convicted by a non-unanimous jury in Louisiana since the law was established during the Jim Crow era. Experts say the policy was created to marginalize recently freed African American jurors.
Louisiana’s new law is prospective, meaning it only applies to convictions handed down after the law took effect, but if the court overturns its 1972 opinion, it could open the door for appeals. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore says about 25 percent of his district’s cases were decided by a 10 to 2 or 11 to 1 jury.
“How wide does the door open? Does the Supreme Court even open that door? How in the heck is the system going to keep up with that?” Moore asked Tuesday. “You’re talking about drowning in the number of cases that would be opened.”
In theory, the Supreme Court’s ruling could allow convicted criminals to file an appeal and negotiate a plea deal with credit for time served in lieu of re-litigating their case. Although he lamented the strain it could put on his office, Moore said he did not regret his decision to support the constitutional change mandating unanimous juries.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “Eventually, we’re going to have to have some finality in these decisions.”
Moore says re-litigation would also cost the public defenders, courts, and victims services, money, and time, although it’s unclear how much because the state does not know exactly how many people are impacted. Some advocates say the chance to overturn wrongful convictions outweighs the potential cost of retrying the cases.
“Many of these cases are so old and based on bad evidence in the first place, which is why we couldn’t convince 12 people to convict, that prosecutors may just decline to re-prosecute,” Unanimous Jury Coalition member, Mary-Patricia Wray, said. “The Supreme Court is kind of giving us a chance to right that wrong. If the risk is inconvenience for district attorneys to make sure that someone who is entitled to their liberty and freedom gets it, then that’s a perfectly okay cost to be borne by taxpayers and district attorneys to make sure that everyone who is in Louisiana’s jails is supposed to be there."