The Racist Origin of State Laws on Juries is encouraging Change. Split-Jury Verdicts are permitted to allow Ethnic Minorities to be Ignored.
Two Jurors who sat in Judgment at Willie Dunn Junior’s Murder Trial in 2011 thought he had a Plausible Claim to Self-Defence, and Voted to Acquit him. The other Ten thought Dunn was Guilty not of Murder but of the lesser Crime of Manslaughter, and in Louisiana that’s good enough. Dunn is now about midway through a 20-year stretch in Prison.
Whereas Split-Verdicts are acceptable in England, in America they can Convict People only in Louisiana and Oregon, each of which allows Convictions in most Felony Cases when Ten of 12 Jurors agree. Now in Louisiana a Proposal to put the Question of Reforming the Law before Voters has cleared the State Senate and is Pending in the House. In Oregon, Prosecutors, the Law’s staunchest Defenders, are now talking about Supporting a Change.
The shift of Sentiment comes amid renewed discussion of the Law’s shameful History and troubling effects. The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest newspaper, recently analyzed the outcomes of nearly 1,000 Felony Trials. About Two-Fifths ended with Split Verdicts, which were 30% more likely when the Defendant was Black, and in Louisiana, most are. Though the State’s Population is about One-Third Black, the Prison Population, the largest, per head, in the World, is Two-Thirds Black.
The Newspaper also found that Black People are heavily Underrepresented on the Juries that send people to Jail, often for Life. Mr Dunn was found Guilty by an All-White Jury, even though the Community it was drawn from is nearly Half African-American. It is not a great look for a Deep South State with a History of Slavery and Discrimination.
Louisiana required Unanimous Verdicts for its first 80 years of Statehood, but after the Civil War newly enfranchised Black People started to serve on Juries. The Split-Verdict Law was adopted as part of Louisiana’s Constitutional Convention in 1898, the stated purpose of which was “to establish the supremacy of the white race”. It aimed to ensure that, if a couple of Blacks were somehow seated on a Jury, their Votes could be Ignored. According to Lawrence Powell of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana felt the need for this Law more than other Southern States did because it had a unique Tradition of “free people of colour”, Mixed-Race Free People, often of Spanish or French origin, especially clustered in New Orleans, who were agitating for Political Rights more forcefully than most newly Freed Slaves dared to.
Oregon’s Split-Verdict Law was the product of a different sort of Racism. It was Passed in Protest against a Manslaughter Verdict handed down in 1933 in a widely publicized Case in which the Accused Murderer was Jewish. Eleven Jurors had supported the Murder Charge, but there was One Holdout. The Killer got a Short Prison term, spawning outrage. The Morning Oregonian opined that “the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe, of people untrained in the jury system, have combined to make the jury of 12 increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory”. Months later, in 1934, Voters Approved the Law allowing Split Verdicts.
Today, Split-Jury Verdicts play out in quite different ways:
- In Louisiana, the Law’s Racist Stench remains, thanks to the State’s Demographics and its struggles with Mass Incarceration, which are attributable in part to a Law that makes it easier for Prosecutors to Win their Cases.
- Anti-Semitism, by Contrast, is of little moment in today’s Oregon, and the Law merely gives a Helping Hand to Prosecutors in getting Defendants Sent Down. Nevertheless, we hope change may be coming.
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