Louisiana and Oregon are the lone two states in the U.S. that do not require verdicts of felony cases to be unanimous among jurors, but that could change with the passing of a constitutional amendment Tuesday—and count St. Charles Parish District Attorney Joel Chaisson II among those in support of it.
Chaisson is among several district attorneys statewide to have publicly supported Amendment 2, which would make a unanimous agreement of jurors required to convict someone charged with a felony. Currently, just 10 of 12 jurors are required to find a defendant guilty for conviction, and Louisiana is the only state where split verdicts are permitted in murder trials.
The amendment is up for vote on the ballot of Tuesday’s (Nov. 6) general election.
The bill has garnered bipartisan support and thus far has not faced much public opposition.
“I think it’s important for a number of reasons to bring Louisiana in line with all of the other 48 states that require a unanimous jury verdict,” Chaisson said. “Louisiana and Oregon are outliers in that regard of not having that requirement, and I don’t know why we need to be different.”
The allowance of split jury verdicts was passed in 1880 by state lawmakers following the 14th Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing all men—including former slaves — the right to vote and serve on juries. Many of those seeking to change the law have noted their belief the split jury allowance was put into place at the time for racially-driven reasons.
The effect of the law has not been insignificant. An investigation of statistics by the New Orleans Advocate showed 40 percent of 993 felony trials over the past six years came via split juries.
“There’s no question about the history of the non-unanimous verdict requirement and how it came to be,” Chaisson said. “It was a different time then, and unfortunately that was something that passed at the time for reasons that were not legitimate. This is an opportunity to correct that and put it in line with what nearly every other state in the union does.”
Chaisson acknowledged that law as it currently stands gives prosecutors additional leverage to secure guilty pleas, but said the loss of that leverage isn’t a concern of his in the face of what he believes is simply the right thing to do.
“(The amendment) has bi-partisan support from republicans and democrats, criminal justice reform advocates and a number of prosecutors, though it’s not unanimous among them,” Chaisson said. “No question it gives prosecutors leverage, but at what price? I feel I’m able to do my job properly without needing that leverage.
“We should be able to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt among 12 jurors … this is an opportunity to correct something that’s been on the books for a long time, and I think the time has come to fix it.”