More Than 1,500 People Are Incarcerated on 'Jim Crow Jury' Decisions. The Supreme Court Could Give Them Another Chance.

80 percent of those convicted by "Jim Crow juries" in Louisiana were Black.

Dec 1 2020, 7:38pmSnap
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The U.S. Supreme Court banned so-called “Jim Crow juries” in April when it ruled 6-3 in Ramos v. Louisiana that non-unanimous verdicts were unconstitutional. 

Now, the high court will decide whether the 1,500-plus people still stuck behind bars on split verdicts are entitled to new trials. 

On Dec. 2, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Edwards v. Vannoy, which stems from the non-unanimous conviction of a Black Louisiana man on charges of aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, and armed robbery. 

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The case will determine whether the Ramos decision applies retroactively—not just to future cases or those on direct appeal. Depending on how the justices rule, Edwards v. Vannoy could trigger retrials, plea agreements, and dismissals among those affected by divided jury convictions, offering a largely Black inmate population a shot at freedom. 

In 48 states and federal courts, the doubts of even a single juror have long been enough to result in a mistrial. But, for years, that wasn’t the case in Louisiana and Oregon—the two states that allowed split verdicts through what some now call “Jim Crow juries.”

In Louisiana, split jury convictions were a product of the state’s desire to silence Black jurors and incarcerate Black defendants, according to Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at the Louisiana-based Promise of Justice Initiative. 

“The Ramos case made it clear that this was unconstitutional,” Johnson said. “Hopefully Edwards will be an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to give these men and women a remedy.”

Her organization found that 80 percent of the more than 1,500 people still incarcerated on divided jury decisions in Louisiana are Black. Many are serving life sentences without a chance of parole. And the Ramos ruling affirmed what many of them already felt, Johnson said: that their “convictions were unconstitutional, that they were unfair, that they were based in this racist history.” 

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Louisiana’s endorsement of non-unanimous juries resulted from the state’s 1898 constitutional convention, the purpose of which was to “establish the supremacy of the white race,” according to the majority opinion in Ramos, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Louisiana voters got rid of split jury verdicts in their state in 2018.  

The Oregon rule followed Louisiana’s in 1934, when Ku Klux Klan activity was high across the state, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. It wasn't immediately clear how many people remain imprisoned there on non-unanimous verdicts today, but Oregon was the last state to allow such convictions up until the Ramos decision. 

The Edwards case isn’t a matter of immediately releasing everyone impacted by those split juries from prison, but doing “what every other state has always done,” Johnson said. 

Still, top law officials in Louisiana, including the state’s attorney general, wrote in a Supreme Court brief in September that “there is no reason to believe that non-unanimous verdicts are disproportionately likely to put innocent people behind bars.” Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill has also argued that retroactivity in the Ramos decision would overwhelm state courts, according to NOLA.com. 

“States have powerful interests in the certainty and finality of their criminal convictions—especially where, as here, they obtained those convictions in direct reliance on this court’s then-existing precedents,” the officials wrote. “This court has been extraordinary careful about applying new rules retroactively.”

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Top law officials in Oregon also warned in an amicus brief that retroactivity of the Ramos ruling could “undermine the finality of an enormous number of convictions and seriously strain its criminal justice system.” 

The Promise of Justice Initiative, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Orleans Public Defenders disputed that the case would create a ton of new work in their own amicus brief with the court. Most of the cases could be resolved with plea agreements or dismissals, rather than heading to a retrial, the attorneys said.

“Retroactive application of Ramos would likely result in no more than one additional trial per assistant district attorney,” attorneys with the Louisiana-based organizations wrote. “But it would enhance confidence in the fairness and reliability of the proceedings infinitely.”

Roderick Vidau is among those impacted by non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana. In 2007, the “model inmate” with a “spotless disciplinary record” was convicted of two counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of attempted first-degree robbery by a 10-2 jury vote, and of attempted simple robbery by a vote of 11-1. 

Vidau’s conviction came from accusations that he robbed a few people of $15 in cash one night in November 2005. The victims thought their attacker had a weapon under his shirt. But Vidau maintains his innocence, according to a press release from his attorneys at Haynes and Boone. 

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The evidence used to convict Vidau was shaky, according to Sally Dahlstrom, a Dallas-based attorney for Haynes and Boone, since no cash was recovered on Vidau. One of the witnesses at his preliminary examination couldn’t identify him, and, during his trial, an eyewitness identified someone else as the aggressor. 

But the fact that Vidau was wearing a blue shirt—matching the suspect—and ran when he was approached by cops was used against him, Dahlstrom said. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, which was enhanced to 35 years when the court deemed him a habitual offender. 

If the justices were to determine that the Ramos decision applied retroactively, Dahlstrom said Vidau would be entitled to a new trial, since the jury in his case was split. The district attorney could also decide to release him without it. Already, the father of three has served a year for each dollar he allegedly stole. 

“Roderick would tell you the hardest part for being incarcerated for this long is that he’s missed out on their entire childhood,” Dahlstrom, who is representing Vidau with other attorneys at Haynes and Boone and the Promise of Justice Initiative, said. 

Tagged:

SCOTUS, 8:46 News, The 8:46 Project, Jim Crow Juries, split juries, ramos v. louisiana, edwards v. vannoy

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