In Massive Effort, Civil Rights Groups Seek Reversal of More Than 1000 Convictions by Non-Unanimous Juries in Louisiana in Light of Supreme Court Ruling
April 20, 2021, St. Landry Parish and Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana – The Center for Constitutional Rights submitted petitions seeking to overturn the convictions of Rufus Henry and Matthew Allen, two Black men serving life sentences at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after being convicted of second-degree murder by non-unanimous juries. The petitions are two of more than 1,000 filed by the Promise of Justice Initiative and more than 700 volunteer lawyers across the U.S. seeking justice for people still incarcerated in Louisiana who were convicted by non-unanimous juries. One year ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that non-unanimous verdicts in felony cases are unconstitutional, which makes today the deadline to file for relief for previous convictions. Advocates say allowing felony convictions by non-unanimous juries is a relic of the Jim Crow era, which has systematically discounted the votes of jurors of color, led to a significant number of wrongful convictions, and helped maintain disproportionately high rates of incarceration of Black people in Louisiana.
“Jim Crow Juries” were established in Louisiana by white supremacists at an 1898 Constitutional Convention, with the intention of maintaining the subjugation of Black Louisianans. Prior to last term’s Supreme Court ruling, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states still allowing felony convictions with non-unanimous juries, and only in Louisiana could a judge sentence someone to life without the possibility of parole when a jury did not reach a unanimous verdict. Both men represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights were convicted by juries 10-2. In both cases, the two votes not to convict were cast by the only two Black people on the jury, while the 10 votes to convict were all cast by white jurors. Both Mr. Henry and Mr. Allen claim they acted in self defense, and both cases excluded evidence that attorneys say would have substantiated their versions of events.
“The Jim Crow Jury system has sentenced our two clients to Death By Incarceration at Angola, where they remain despite the Supreme Court’s clear ruling that their convictions were unconstitutionally obtained,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Staff Attorney Angelo Guisado. “This system, designed by anti-Reconstructionists to ‘establish the supremacy of the white race,’ continues to subjugate Louisiana’s Black citizenry. We will stop at no end to bring about their liberation.”
Advocates say non-unanimous juries have cemented Louisiana’s position as the state with the highest rate of incarceration and most wrongful convictions per capita in the Deep South, and, by overriding the criminal trial votes of Black jurors, Louisiana has also kept disproportionately high numbers of Black people incarcerated.
“Each one of these petitions represents a person who is serving time in prison due to an unjust, racist practice that was enshrined in Louisiana’s state constitution under Jim Crow,” said Jamila Johnson, Managing Attorney for PJI’s Jim Crow Juries Project. “Thanks to the incredible work and dedication of our committed staff and more than 700 volunteers from Seattle to Singapore, we have successfully filed more than 1,000 requests for new trials so justice can finally be restored and this relic of Jim Crow can finally be destroyed.”
In 2018, 64 percent of Louisiana voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution, Amendment 2, which abolished non-unanimous jury convictions for future felony cases but did nothing to address the fates of those previously convicted. Then, on April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury applies in both federal and state courts. The Supreme Court is currently deciding Edwards v. Vannoy, a case that would establish whether the decision in Ramos is retroactive under federal law.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page for State v. Henry and State v. Allen.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.