NEW ORLEANS, La. – On the heels of a powerful decision by the United States Supreme Court in Ramos v. Louisiana that held non-unanimous juries unconstitutional, the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) has filed nine petitions on behalf of Louisianans denied their day in Court and deprived of their liberty. “Our constitutional rights can’t take a back seat. They have to apply to everyone consistently, even if that takes work to guarantee,” Hardell Ward, a staff attorney at PJI, said.
Today’s filings are the first from PJI and pro bono law firm partners across the country committed to doing the work to restore liberty to those still in prison after non-unanimous jury convictions. During this time of COVID-19 outbreak in prisons, the urgency of seeking justice cannot be overstated. Multiple PJI clients convicted with less than unanimous juries have tested positive for COVID-19. Louisiana’s unconstitutional jury practices have exposed them to the dangerous conditions COVID-19 has caused in Louisiana prisons.
Rhonda Jordan is one of 217 women held by the Department of Corrections (DOC) in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women to have tested positive for the virus. “My mom is a very nurturing person and she was always a fighter. Even now, fighting through COVID,”said Ms. Jordan’s daughter, Miranda. Louisiana convicted Ms. Jordan with an unconstitutional non-unanimous jury. At trial, she presented substantial evidence that her family was under attack in their home and she did what she had to do to keep them safe. When jurors found her self-defense arguments credible, Louisiana still convicted her and sentenced her to 20 years at hard labor.
Louisiana remains the state with the highest incarceration rate in the world and one of the highest exoneration rates. Louisiana has more people serving life without the possibility of parole per capita than any other state. Many of these individuals were given life without parole by a less than unanimous jury, including Ricky Davis. Louisiana’s courts sentenced Mr. Davis to life without parole for trying to protect a sexual assault victim. When Ricky ran to a parking lot to get the license plate of the assailant, the driver attempted to run him and another bystander over with his truck. Ricky fired his weapon to attempt to stop the driver. Mr. Davis received a life sentence for trying to do the right thing. “Ricky was a family friend who introduced me to his son. Now, his son and I have been married going on 12 years,” his daughter-in-law, Jeanique Angelain, said. “I was in the courtroom when the verdict came out. The two people who voted not guilty, their voices didn’t matter. So my children suffer because those jurors didn’t have a voice. My children have never seen him outside of prison. My daughter is about to be 10 and the last day of his trial is the day I found out I was having a little girl. Ricky has never had the opportunity to push my children on a swing or fly a kite with them. He loves going fishing and he’s never gotten to take his grandchildren fishing. They ask, ‘When does Paw-Paw get to come home?’ I don’t want to lie to them, it is heartbreaking. We have hope now, he might be able to come home to us.”
The coalition supporting a change to Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law for past and future cases includes the voices of families directly impacted by incarceration, District Attorneys, elected officials, faith leaders, and community advocates. Akin Gump, which has been working with PJI for months to identify individuals convicted by non-unanimous juries, is proud to be part of this first step in enforcing the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos.
Former Grant Parish District Attorney, Ed Tarpley, says “The question […] is whether the cause of liberty and justice extends to those people who have been denied a fundamental constitutional right, the right to unanimous criminal jury verdict. There must be some measure of relief to all those thousands of people who were convicted under a law that was evil and wicked from its inception. The difficulty of righting this historic wrong does not absolve Louisiana from doing so. The fact that justice has been delayed, does not mean that it should be denied.”
Relief for these people offers the possibility of healing for Louisiana, which had existed under the specter of this racist law for over a century. “The voters of Louisiana made clear that convicting people under a Jim Crow law—a law that required trials where the voices of jurors were ignored—did not share our values. The U.S. Supreme Court then made clear that the State has been depriving Louisianans of their constitutional right to a unanimous jury trial,” Jamila Johnson, managing attorney at Promise of Justice Initiative, said. “Now it is our moral responsibility to heal these wounds for the people who have the suffered the deepest injuries—the men and women who have had their liberty taken and are serving time in Louisiana’s prisons.”
Eddie was convicted 15 years ago by a non-unanimous jury for armed robbery, where he was accused of stealing $15. Not everyone on his jury was convinced he was guilty. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Eddie Lane is now 44 years old and deserves justice. Those are years he can’t get back. Our Constitution has to be worth more to us.
Jeanie is in prison serving life without any possibility of parole. When a minor overdosed on prescription medicine, her prescription pills were presented as a possible culprit. The whole jury did not agree that Jeanie was guilty, but in Louisiana it didn’t matter because less than unanimous jury verdicts were legal. It sounds unbelievable and unconstitutional, but these stories are all too common in Louisiana.