Could Louisiana Finally Be Moving Out Of The 19th Century?
By Kenneth Cooper
What happens when you think a race of people are too stupid to serve on juries, but you can’t stop them from serving because federal law prevents you from doing so? You face a conundrum, that’s what. 120 years ago state legislators here in Louisiana faced that conundrum when it came to black people. Gone were the good ole days of slavery, its subservience, and its mostly free labor. Back then, Louisiana, like the rest of the south, was being forced to move onto more evolved forms of racism.
That meant converting former slave labor into prison labor, a move from a moral violation of rights to a legal one. That also meant getting the few blacks serving on juries to help convict fellow blacks of the discriminatory charges that had begun to spring up post slavery. Clearly, that would’ve been a hard sell, so the easier thing to do was to declare black people too ignorant to understand the state’s law and best interest. As a result, the state constitution was rewritten so that felony cases could be decided by a majority verdict, 9 out of the 12, instead of a unanimous one, which was great for the state since most of the jurors were white.
Fast forward a 120 years, and Louisiana, constitutionally, is still paying homage to its racist past. Black voices in jury deliberation are still being diluted by white majorities, resulting in the mass incarceration of young black males. The state appears to be being tugged in two different directions when it comes to what to do with this plethora of labor.
Senator J.P. Morrell has proposed Senate bill 243 which would allow citizens to vote to amend the constitution and have felony cases be decided by a unanimous jury instead of a majority. That bill has passed in the Senate and is waiting to be heard in the House. In the House, though, is another bill, which, if passed, would allow prison labor to be officially expanded to other uses, like cleaning and doing gardening work at the state capitol and governor’s mansion. Prisoners already do this work for less than a dollar an hour, but it’s not clear if it’s legally allowed.
Presently, Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states that still allow only majority decisions. The rest of the states appear to have more regard for the lives of their citizens, hence they require absolute unanimity to lock up their citizens.
If passed and approved by voters, the effect of Morrell’s bill is unclear. It could result in less convictions and more legal equality. Or we could see more hung juries and retrials and thereby more costs for defendants and the state. Alternatively, it might just result in juries being more deliberative before they come back with the same guilty verdicts they would have come back with under the old racist system.
It’s ironic though, that a law passed based on the supposed stupidity and racial inferiority of one race of people could eventually be dependent on a citizenry that’s been subjected to worst educational system in the country for its rectification. That’s Louisiana though, where the state’s best interest is rarely determined by common sense.