Norris Henderson said it best when he called Louisiana’s split-jury rule “Jim Crow’s last stand.” On Tuesday, November 6, Louisiana voters scored a resounding victory for justice by approving Constitutional Amendment 2 and abolishing the law that allowed less-than-unanimous juries to convict people to life without parole.
It was a victory 120 years in the making. Louisiana’s rare split-jury law dates back to 1898 when white supremacists at the state constitutional convention wanted to increase the supply of free prison labor and nullify the voting power of black jurors.
Their solution was to lower the threshold for felony convictions by removing the requirement that juries be unanimous. They calculated that even if two Black jurors made it on a jury, their votes would be canceled out by the majority, and the defendant would still be convicted.
Ever since, this harmful relic of Jim Crow has worked exactly as it was designed: increasing the prison population, perpetuating racial disparities, and sending innocent people like Travis Hayes to prison. An analysis by The Advocate found that Black defendants were more likely than white defendants to be convicted over the objections of jury members.
Now, thanks to a diverse and bipartisan coalition of Louisianans, that’s going to change. Starting in January, defendants in Louisiana will once again have the right to liberty unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This is a historic victory for justice, and a testament to the many Louisianans who marched, rallied, phone banked and knocked doors to get the word out about the importance of restoring the right to unanimous juries.
Leading this effort were those, like Norris Henderson, who had experienced this gross injustice first-hand – and who were determined to make sure no Louisianan was ever again wrongfully convicted to life without parole unless all members of the jury agreed.
ACLU People Power volunteers were part of the movement as well, making thousands of calls to registered voters. These efforts helped paved the way for a more perfect union, and for a Louisiana Constitution that protects all of its citizens.
Moving forward, the fight for a true justice system that puts people before prisons is far from over. But thanks to the efforts of the Unanimous Jury Coalition and others, Louisiana is taking another giant step towards a future of freedom and justice for all.