Civil Rights Lawyers: Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts Are a Vestige of Slavery and Should be Overturned

Louisiana should retroactively apply the constitutional ban on "Jim Crow juries," lawyers argue 

May 2, 2022, New Orleans, LA - In an amicus brief filed today, civil rights lawyers urge the Louisiana Supreme Court to throw out all non-unanimous verdicts. Pointing out that so-called Jim Crow juries helped Louisiana reproduce a system of white domination following the Civil War, the lawyers argue that non-unanimous verdicts violate the 13th Amendment, which was intended to abolish slavery. 

After the Supreme Court ruled non-unanimous verdicts in felony cases unconstitutional in 2020, about 1,500 people convicted by split juries filed petitions for relief in Louisiana. But state circuit courts diverged on whether the constitutional ban should apply retroactively. In State of Louisiana vs. Reginald Reddick, the state’s Supreme Court will rule on this question. 

In their brief, lawyers from the Center of Constitutional Rights and Bill Quigley of Loyola Law School say non-unanimous verdicts violate not only the fair trial rights of the 6th and 14th Amendments but also the 13th Amendment. Because the 13th Amendment was meant to remedy the horrors of slavery and the various forms of racial oppression that emanated it, the ban on non-unananious verdicts should be retroactive, they say. 

“The non-unanimous jury system was a flagrant betrayal of the promises of Reconstruction, an intentional subversion of the rights that grant full and unequivocal freedom for Black Americans,” said Angelo Guisado, staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. 

To make the case for retroactivity, the lawyers delve into the history of Louisiana, which, after the Civil War, engaged in a project to criminalize Black life and perpetuate white domination. It used its criminal justice system to recreate a forced Black labor system, and non-unanimous juries – which enabled 11-1, 10-2, and 9-3 white majorities to send Black people to prison – were an essential component of this re-enslavement.

The new system of slavery bore striking similarities to the original. Between 1870 to 1901, Louisiana leased all imprisoned people to a single person, Samuel Lawrence James, a former Confederate major who transformed Angola Plantation into a prison labor camp for the state’s prisoners and housed them in the old slave quarters. James purchased Angola Plantation only after Louisiana had passed its first non-unanimous jury law in 1880, effectively guaranteeing him a steady supply of incarcerated laborers. 

This system of subjugation that non-unanimous juries helped build still exists. Louisiana imprisons a higher percentage of its residents than any other state – and any country in the world – and although African-American make up about a third of the population, they represent about two-thirds of the prison population. Angola still exists, and three-quarters of the people imprisoned there are Black, toiling for a few cents an hour in the same fields where officially enslaved people were forced to work 200 years ago. 

In 1898, Louisiana held a constitutional convention to, as chair of the judiciary committee put it, “establish the supremacy of the white race.” It was here that the state codified the 1880 non-unanimous jury law into its constitution. This was one of the convention’s changes to the constitution that flew in the face of rights enshrined by the 13th Amendment, the lawyers say. 

In their brief, they trace the origins of 13th Amendment to show that its scope extends far beyond formal bondage; Congress also sought to address racial oppression that derived from slavery – its vestiges. The Supreme Court has recognized that the 13th Amendment covers what it calls the “badges and incidents of slavery.” Non-unanimous verdicts are one such badge and incident of slavery, the lawyers say, and under the 13th Amendment, Louisiana must overturn them. 

The 13th Amendment makes one exception: it bans all slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The key phrase is “duly convicted,” which has always meant conviction by a unanimous jury and in accordance with due process. The 13th Amendment clearly protects people convicted by “Jim Crow juries,” the lawyers say. 

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


Last modified 

May 2, 2022