Unanimous verdicts: Justice ensured or justice delayed?
It’s a simple question that 48 other states have already answered: “Should a unanimous jury verdict be required in all felony cases?”
This November, Louisiana voters will be asked to answer that question when a proposed constitutional amendment is placed on the Nov. 6 ballot. Many of those voters are probably unaware that the state doesn’t already require a unanimous verdict in a felony case.
If approved by the voters, the new law will take effect for offenses committed on or after Jan. 1, 2019.
How will this provision affect Avoyelles Parish?
Well, if the unanimous jury rule had been in effect last year, the trial in a high-profile shooting death would have ended in a hung jury due to a 10-2 vote of jurors instead of a 40-year sentence for manslaughter.
Three men involved in the criminal justice system were asked for their insight into the proposed change. A defender said it will benefit defendants. A prosecutor said it will have no significant effect. A former district judge has concerns about scrapping the “split verdict” rule, saying the trial process will be “less efficient” and the change will “send deep waves throughout the criminal justice system.”
The Senate adopted the bill with a 27-10 vote on April 4 and by the House with an 84-15 vote on May 14. A 2/3 vote was needed in each chamber to send the proposed amendment to the voters. The Senate needed 26 votes and the House needed 70.
The House amended the Senate bill to clarify that the amendment’s provision would not be retroactive to crimes committed prior to Jan. 1, 2019. The Senate approved the amended bill, 28-7, on May 15 and sent the proposed constitutional amendment to the Secretary of State’s Office on May 22 to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
What voters will have to decide is whether requiring a unanimous vote guarantees justice for the accused or delays justice for the victim. The proposed change would apply to most major felonies. Those charges that could carry a death sentence already require a unanimous vote to convict.
“I have no problem with it at all,” District Attorney Charles Riddle said. “I think there has been much ado about nothing as far as discussion of the origins of the split verdict law go.”
Riddle said the Constitution of 1898 actually required only nine votes out of 12 jurors to render a guilty or innocent verdict. That was revised to require 10 votes in the 1973 Constitution.
“I don’t expect much difference in results,” Riddle said. “Most juries stay in deliberation until they reach a unanimous decision, guilty or not guilty.”
In many of the cases when there is a split verdict, it’s because the jury stops working “as soon as they get to 10 votes.” Riddle said his office will be ready to proceed under the new rules if the amendment is approved by voters.
“I can tell you that both sides will be more careful in selecting jurors during the voire dire process,” he continued. “We certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck with a juror who was committed to voting ‘not guilty’ no matter what the evidence shows.”
Chief Public Defender Brad Dauzat said the proposal “is a fantastic idea for defendants. It also brings Louisiana more in line with the other states.”
Approximately 85 percent of Louisiana defendants require a public defender, according to a lawsuit seeking additional funding for the public defense program
That suit, currently pending in court, claims Louisiana needs to quadruple its number of public defenders to meet the national recommended standard.
“I can definitely understand why there is support for the change,” Dauzat added.
Former 12th Judicial District judge Mark Jeansonne said he understands the arguments on both sides of the issue.
“It is a complex issue that many people may not fully understand,” Jeansonne said. “If it is approved, it will definitely send deep waves throughout the criminal justice system of this parish and state.”
All things considered, “I don’t like the change,” he said. “Personally, I think allowing conviction or acquittal on a vote of 10 out of 12 jurors is fair.”
Jeansonne is concerned that requiring a unanimous vote of 12 jurors “will be less efficient. If there is a hung jury on a 10-juror vote, district attorneys will feel obligated to re-prosecute.”
That will increase the cost of prosecuting criminals, or result in more “deals” being reached to avoid trying or re-trying a case.
Jeansonne also raised the problem for defendants who might be penalized because one or two jurors are holding out for a conviction and might pressure those in favor of acquittal to find the defendant guilty of a lesser charge.
“If the prosecutor didn’t prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt, it wouldn’t be fair to the defendant to be found guilty of something just to avoid a hung jury,” he said.
Jeansonne said he has long believed that prosecutors should come to trial with one charge against the defendant and be required to prove that charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Instead, when the jury is sent out to deliberate, the judge has to explain to them that if they don’t think there is enough evidence to convict on one charge, they can find the defendant guilty of a lesser responsive charge,” Jeansonne said. “If they don’t feel they can convict on that one, then there’s this one, and so on.”
He said jurors should have only two choices to consider when they go into deliberations -- guilty or not guilty of the crime the district attorney alleged during the trial.
Doing away with the “split verdict” conviction may not be the best way to go, he continued.
Jeansonne said he has seen cases as a judge where he knew one of the jurors was letting sympathy or emotions get in the way of casting a decision based on the facts proven in court.
With the 10-out-of-12 rule, one overly sympathetic or emotional decision does not stop justice cold in its tracks. The unanimous vote rule would.
“We don’t want to see a case where the state has proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and one juror votes based on sympathy or some reason other than what was presented in court,” Jeansonne said. “We don’t want to see a guilty person walk away free.”
The other side of that coin is “that we are talking about a serious felony, which would involve depriving a person of a large number of years of his life, and we want to be sure that there are proper safeguards in place to avoid sending an innocent man to jail for a crime that was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Which brought him back to his concern over allowing juries to convict on lesser charges that may have never even been discussed by prosecutors during the trial.