‘Liberty, justice and fairness’
Former DA voices support for unanimous jury decisions
A former Grant Parish district attorney said the constitutional amendment that would require Louisiana to have unanimous juries in felony trials is one of the most important voters will consider.
Ed Tarpley told Greater Lake Charles Rotary Club members on Wednesday that he supports amendment No. 2, which goes before voters Nov. 6. It would apply to crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 2019.
Louisiana and Oregon are the only states that do not require a unanimous jury verdict in felony cases.
“How can you say a person has been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt if one or two people on the jury still have doubt,” he asked. “It simply doesn’t make any sense.”
From 1803 until 1880, Louisiana had unanimous jury trials. The law was changed during the post-Reconstruction era, requiring nine out of 12 jurors to agree on a verdict. It became part of the state’s constitution in 1890 before being changed to 10 jurors during the 1973 constitutional convention.
For juries of six, there must be a unanimous decision, Tarpley said. Unanimous juries are also required for firstdegree murder cases.
Tarpley said the decision in 1880 to take away the unanimous jury law made it easier to convict African Americans under Jim Crow-Era laws. But other southern states, like Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, kept the law in place.
“It’s a shameful and unfortunate period in history for our state,” he said.
Louisiana has the fastest deliberation time because if 10 jurors agree on a verdict, the case is over. Tarpley said half of the cases where people were exonerated came from nonunanimous jury verdicts.
“This hangs like a cloud over Louisiana,” he said. “It affects how cases are prosecuted and defended.”
Tarpley said he believes district attorneys will support the new amendment, if passed.
State lawmakers approved putting the amendment on the November ballot during the spring legislative session. Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier came under fire in April during a House committee meeting after voicing concerns.
DeRosier said on Wednesday that his position on unanimous juries has not changed. He mentioned finding nine out of 12 cases over the last 20 to 30 years that were reversed because of insufficient evidence.
“I’m not saying that’s the gospel, but the empirical data doesn’t support the statement that unanimous verdicts are more reliable than 10 out of 12,” DeRosier said.
Retroactivity is DeRosier’s biggest concern. He said if a federal judge rules that the amendment creates a ‘liberty interest’ and may be held to be retroactive, it could “open the flood gates for new trials for people who have already been convicted by non-unanimous juries.”
DeRosier said his office “can live with unanimous juries.”
“It’ll be more difficult, but we’ll survive,” he said.
Tarpley, who has his own defense law firm in Alexandria, urged Rotarians to encourage residents to vote for the amendment.
“This is a real turning point for Louisiana to send a message to the rest of the nation that we love liberty, justice and fairness,” he said.
‘This hangs like a cloud over Louisiana. It affects how cases are prosecuted and defended.’
Former Grant Parish district attorney
Ed Tarpley speaking to the Greater Lake Charles Rotary Club on his support for Amendment No. 2, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. If approved by voters, it would require jurors to reach a unanimous decision for a conviction.