September 2, 2020
NEW ORLEANS – The Promise of Justice Initiative today announced the filing of a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case of Willie Gipson, a Black man who was convicted as a child in 1996 by a non-unanimous jury, and who continues to serve a life sentence in Louisiana. The petition asks the court to apply its decision in Ramos vs. Louisiana, which struck down Jim Crow juries as unconstitutional, retroactively.
Gipson’s story is a powerful example of the injustice of Jim Crow juries, which were devised by white supremacists to oppress and imprison Black people, and the impact they continue to have on families in Louisiana. His entire trial took less than a day, during a proceeding where he was represented by a lawyer who was under public reprimand from the Louisiana Bar for misconduct, and would subsequently be disbarred.
“Willie Gipson’s freedom was taken from him by Jim Crow when he was just a child – and he continues to be imprisoned by a racist law deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” said Ben Cohen, Of Counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative.
Jamila Johnson, Managing Attorney for PJI’s Jim Crow Juries Project said: “There are more than 1,500 people behind bars in Louisiana right now who, just like Willie Gipson, were convicted by non-unanimous juries. Our petition makes clear that there is no grandfather clause in the Constitution that allows the state of Louisiana to incarcerate people based upon a racist and unconstitutional law, just because they had the misfortune of being convicted before a specific date.”
Gipson was convicted of second-degree murder at the age of 17 on the basis of a single eyewitnesses’ identification from a photographic lineup. That witness had initially told the police “[i]t would be kind of like hard” to identify the shooter and “I really didn’t look, you know, really see him that well.” Another witness, the victim’s neighbor, heard the shooting and thought she saw a bike outside, but said “it was too dark to determine if a man or a woman was on the bicycle.”
This is the first case the Promise of Justice Initiative has asked the Supreme Court to take where the Louisiana Supreme Court had an opportunity to decide whether the Supreme Court’s opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana should be retroactive but declined to consider the question of whether split-jury verdicts would be invalidated. In June, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to take Gipson’s case, over the strong dissent of Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. In her dissent, Johnson wrote that the Ramos decision should be applied retroactively, writing: “Simply pledging to uphold the Constitution in future criminal trials does not heal the wounds already inflicted on Louisiana’s African American community by the use of this law for 120 years…The cost of giving new trials to all defendants convicted by non-unanimous juries pales in comparison to the long-term societal cost of perpetuating—by our own inaction—a deeply-ingrained distrust of law enforcement, criminal justice, and Louisiana’s government institutions.”
The use of non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal trials dates back to the dawn of the Jim Crow era in 1898, when white supremacists in Louisiana came together to write a new constitution. For years, Louisiana and Oregon have been the only two states that allowed people to be convicted of serious crimes without the unanimous consent of a jury. In 2018, 64 percent of Louisiana voters approved Amendment 2, which abolished non-unanimous jury convictions for future felony cases.
“Gipson’s trial is a tragic example of the injustice of Jim Crow juries – from his inadequate legal counsel, to the questionable witness testimony, to the two jurors who still harbored doubts about his guilt,” said Johnson. “We cannot sit by and allow those with these unjust Jim Crow jury convictions to languish in prison without doing everything we can to mend this painful history and restore justice to these Louisianans and their families.”
Attorneys with PJI are working in partnership with more than 40 pro bono law firms and more than 150 lawyers across the country to restore justice to those still in prison under unconstitutional non-unanimous jury convictions.
Read the full petition for certiorari here.
CONTACT: Laura Swinford, 314-856-2799, firstname.lastname@example.org