Reginald Reddick is serving life in jail in Louisiana for second-degree homicide, though two jurors at his 1997 trial discovered him not responsible. Almost anyplace else within the nation, he would have been acquitted: Even one juror would have been sufficient to vary the result. This week, the Louisiana Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Reddick’s case, during which he argues that he’s entitled to a brand new trial. The court docket’s determination might have an effect on greater than 1,000 individuals who, like Reddick, are serving time for crimes that a few of their jurors didn’t imagine they dedicated past an affordable doubt.
Until just lately, Louisiana was considered one of solely two states that didn’t require the unanimous vote of a jury, a vestige of a Jim Crow-era legislation designed to negate the rising energy of Black jurors. In 2018, Louisiana residents voted to finish the apply, and in 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court discovered non-unanimous jury verdicts unconstitutional. But the excessive court docket declined to make the ruling retroactive, leaving it as much as Louisiana and Oregon (the one different state that allowed cut up juries) to determine whether or not individuals already serving time in such instances had been entitled to new trials.
One evening in 1993, Reddick was ingesting in the identical bar as Al Moliere in a small city south of New Orleans. A witness mentioned he noticed Reddick shoot Moliere later that evening in the middle of a theft, however the story he instructed on the stand conflicted with a number of variations he had beforehand instructed police. All the opposite proof towards Reddick — together with a gun recovered months later with the initials “R.R.” carved into the deal with — was circumstantial, mentioned Jamila Johnson, considered one of his attorneys. In the greater than 20 years he’s been in jail, he’s maintained he didn’t shoot Moliere.
Should Reddick win a brand new trial, many different incarcerated individuals in Louisiana might also be entitled to the identical alternative. But Johnson and the New Orleans nonprofit The Promise of Justice Initiative and others have struggled to reply the surprisingly vexing query: Who, precisely, was convicted by a non-unanimous jury in Louisiana?
“Our record-keeping in the South is horrible,” mentioned Jason Williams, the district legal professional within the parish that features New Orleans. “It has been very difficult just to find all of the records and information necessary to do a complete review.”
That problem was compounded by a deadline: Even if the state Supreme Court guidelines in Reddick’s favor, solely those that filed functions with the state courts inside one yr of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling may have a shot at new trials. Anyone who found later that their jury was not unanimous would want legislators to cross a brand new legislation in an effort to ask for reduction, Johnson mentioned.
Racing the clock to seek out individuals sitting in jail because of cut up juries, three paralegals attended group conferences, visited prisons and despatched letters making an attempt to succeed in individuals who may need been convicted by a cut up jury. “Their job was talking to family members, walking them through documents that were in their closets. ‘You have a giant box. Let’s start in envelope one,’” mentioned Johnson.
Eventually, the staff filed petitions on behalf of about 1,000 individuals they might show had been convicted by cut up juries. In these instances, every juror’s vote was recorded in court docket transcripts or polling slips on the defendants’ authentic trials years, and even many years, in the past.
Hundreds extra had no recourse, mentioned Sara Gozalo, a paralegal with The Promise of Justice Initiative: The outcomes of the jury polling weren’t recorded anyplace, or the polling by no means occurred within the first place. “Maybe you were convicted by a 10-2,” Gozalo needed to inform them. “You’ll never know.”
In most instances, district attorneys have opposed makes an attempt to problem these convictions, arguing that the Supreme Court’s ruling shouldn’t apply to older instances. But in additional than 50 instances, prosecutors have been keen to revisit the convictions with out ready for a ruling within the Reddick case.
Williams, who was elected Orleans Parish District Attorney in 2020, campaigned on a promise to proper most of the wrongs of his predecessors. “There are a realm of cases that are wrongful convictions because, for example, they used a law that was specifically written to exclude Black voices from the jury — whether or not they actually did it,” mentioned Emily Maw, who heads Williams’ Civil Rights Division. For 68 individuals, that meant vacating their convictions and negotiating pleas that resulted in much less jail time.
Mark Isaac was convicted of second-degree homicide in 1992 and had spent many years behind bars earlier than a fellow prisoner on the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola instructed him, “Man, check your paperwork, you might have 10-2,” Isaac recalled. He had maintained that he had acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Elton Williams in New Orleans in 1988, and it wasn’t till he reached out to The Promise of Justice Initiative that he found two jurors might have agreed. His attorneys struck a take care of Williams’ workplace to have Isaac plead to the lesser cost of manslaughter, and he was launched with time served final yr.
When Gozalo joined The Promise of Justice Initiative, she found that every parish in Louisiana had its personal system of maintaining information and its personal guidelines about the best way to request them. Court clerks typically demanded requests be faxed. Who makes use of fax machines in 2020, she puzzled. “I’m at an office with a fax machine, but what does an incarcerated person do?” Gozalo mentioned. “These random rules … from one clerk to the next, seem arbitrary and almost violent to me — like little landmines that make it harder for people to fight their cases.”
The non-unanimous rule has its roots within the years after Reconstruction, when White lawmakers had been seeking to weaken the civic energy of newly enfranchised Black residents. In crafting the rule, “Our mission was, in the first place, to establish the supremacy of the White race in this State,” mentioned delegates to the state’s 1898 constitutional conference. They decided what number of Black individuals had been more likely to be seated on a jury, after which set the minimal variety of votes so prosecutors might reliably receive convictions over Black jurors’ objections. While the variety of votes has modified through the years — first it was 9-3, then it was 10-2 — critics argue, the affect has not.
An investigative sequence by the Louisiana newspaper The Advocate analyzed six years of trial information, discovering that Black defendants had been extra more likely to be convicted by non-unanimous juries. A subsequent evaluation of the identical dataset by Thomas W. Frampton, then a Harvard lecturer, discovered that Black jurors had been considerably extra more likely to solid votes that don’t change the result of the case. In a 2018 court docket case, Frampton argued that “the non-unanimous jury verdict system operated today just as it was intended in 1898: to silence African-Americans on juries and to render their jury service meaningless.”
The historical past of the rule and its penalties are so placing that critics have taken to calling them “Jim Crow juries.”
The state Attorney General’s workplace and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association didn’t reply to requests for interviews. But in court docket filings, attorneys for the state argue that “the State’s interest in the finality of its non-unanimous verdicts is overwhelming and untainted by racial discrimination,” and warn that tons of of latest instances would flood the courts if the brand new rule had been to be made retroactive. “Evidence deteriorates, memories fade and witnesses become unavailable over time. It will be difficult — if not impossible — for the State to retry these cases,” they write. “Even if the State could retry some defendants, doing so would subject the victims of their crimes to fresh pain and difficulty.”
Gozalo and her colleagues say they’re hopeful the state’s excessive court docket will acknowledge that individuals convicted by non-unanimous juries deserve new trials. “We’re not saying, ‘Free everyone,’” she mentioned. “We’re saying, ‘Give everyone a fair trial.’”