Bill to require unanimous verdicts in LA has one more hurdle in legislative process

A bill that aims to change a law about jury verdicts is almost through the legislative process at the State Capitol.

In Louisiana courtroom, it does not take a unanimous verdict in many felony cases.

"Currently, the law says that it's 10 out 12 is all that is needed for a conviction, unless it's a capital case like murder cases," said Joe Raspanti, FOX 8 Legal Analyst.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, of New Orleans, seeks to change that with Senate Bill 243.

Morrell and others contend the current law is outdated, and from the Jim Crow-era.

Morrell's bill would let voters statewide vote on whether Louisiana's constitution should be changed to require juries in felony criminal cases to return unanimous verdicts starting in 2019.

"You don't want juries that rubber-stamp stuff, you want juries that fight and make a determination before they take away someone's liberty," Sen. Morrell stated.

"Our 10 to 2 jury system essentially deprives defendants of the full benefit of the voices of all the members of the juries," said Marjorie Esman, the former head of the ACLU of Louisiana.

"If this passes that would apply to all 12 person juries, no matter what the charge, it would have to be unanimous," Raspanti stated.

New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro, who is a former criminal court judge had no comment on the bill.

But some other veteran prosecutor are strongly opposed to the legislation.

"Human nature being what it is, and over the 34 years that I've served I've seen it become increasingly difficult to be able to select a jury and get 12 people to vote," said Sabine Parish D.A. Don Burkett, to the House Criminal Justice Committee.

"Ask yourselves this question, I want to punch the green button requiring unanimous jury verdicts because, why, because it started with slavery, or because it's the best thing to do for the judicial system?" stated Calcasieu Parish D.A. John DeRosier in his testimony before the House panel.

Pete Adams, Executive Director of the La. District Attorneys Association said the organization did not take a position on the bill because there was not unanimous agreement among its members that LDAA should oppose the measure.

The committee approved the measure without objection, sending it to the full House for consideration.  The measure already has the approval of the state Senate.

"For people who say this is going to make it harder to get a conviction that is correct, but I believe the constitution and our framers of that wanted it to be difficult that's why they such a high standard for beyond a reasonable doubt for these kinds of cases," said Raspanti.

And Sen. Morrell argues that Louisiana is out of step with most other states on the issue.

"Forty-eight other states have unanimous juries. No one has driven in from Texas, , Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, saying, oh my God we can't convict anybody because we have unanimous juries, it's simply not true," said Morrell.

"The argument that, gee, this makes our lives a little tougher, I think there's a bigger issue about fairness," said Raspanti.

If the bill is approved by the full House of Representatives it will head to the governor for his signature and then an election would be held in the fall.

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