NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Prosecutors in New Orleans moved Friday to have convictions overturned for 22 people found guilty of felonies by non-unanimous juries, and to review hundreds of other such convictions obtained under a law with roots in the Jim Crow era.
District Attorney Jason Williams, who took office last month after running on a reform platform, announced the move at a news conference outside the criminal courthouse in New Orleans. He was flanked by his staff, criminal justice advocates and Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
Emily Maw, head of the civil rights division of Williams’ office, said five cases being vacated are being reviewed to see whether charges ever should have been filed. Seventeen are being re-prosecuted. However, 16 of the defendants have agreed to plead guilty as charged or to lesser charges, seeking reduction of sentences that would likely have kept them behind bars for life.
“This doesn’t mean that 22 people walked out onto the streets today,” Williams stressed.
Until January 2019, felony convictions in Louisiana could be obtained with a 10-2 or 11-1 jury vote under laws that opponents said were aimed at making sure Black jurors’ votes could be negated in cases against Black defendants. Oregon was the only other state with a similar law.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment that outlawed non-unanimous verdicts beginning in 2019, a vote that followed a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories in The Advocate analyzing the origins of the law and the racial disparities in verdicts.
And, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous verdicts were unconstitutional.
But the Supreme Court’s decision in April affected only future cases and cases in which the defendants’ appeals had not been exhausted. That left an estimated 1,600 cases in Louisiana unaffected. Advocates estimate more than 300 of them are in New Orleans.
Pending before the high court now is the question of whether the decision should be made retroactive. Williams opted not to wait for that decision.
Williams’ dubbed his initiative “the DA’s Jim Crow Jury Project” and said it is aimed at “repairing 120 plus years of injustice by methodically and efficiently reviewing all applications to the court of cases where persons were convicted by a non-unanimous jury.”
Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, praised the move. Jamila Johnson, of the Promise of Justice Initiative, said her organization represented many of the clients in Friday’s court proceedings.
“It was incredibly moving,” she said, describing the case of one man who agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter — he had been convicted of murder in a non-unanimous verdict in 1974 — in a deal that made him instantly eligible for release from the state prison.
The Promise of Justice Initiative said in a news release that it will reach out to crime victims who might be affected by the revisiting of some convictions.
“While it is absolutely necessary to dismantle this intentionally racist practice of non-unanimous juries, it will have a huge impact on those who assumed the legal process was over,” Katie Hunter-Lowery, of the PJI said in a news release. “We invite survivors and victims’ loved ones to contact us at and we invite city and state leaders to allocate more funding and resources directly to impacted communities.”