Gov. John Bel Edwards quietly supports scrapping Louisiana’s controversial split-verdict law

May 5, 2018 GMT

Gov. John Bel Edwards says he supports the effort to require that juries must return unanimous verdicts for convictions in Louisiana felony trials, a move that would bring the Bayou State in line with every other state in the nation save Oregon.

A bill before the Legislature would allow Louisianians to vote on whether to amend the state’s constitution to make that change. Current law allows felony cases to be decided by juries where at least 10 of 12 members agree that a defendant is guilty or not guilty.

Senate Bill 243, which is expected to be heard in the House next week, has already passed the Senate. It has succeeded thus far with support from some Republican lawmakers and most Democrats. But Edwards, the state’s most prominent Democrat, has been absent from the debate.

On its face, there’s no need for Edwards to be involved: Bills that would put a constitutional amendment before voters do not need the governor’s signature, nor can he veto them. Provided that two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature vote in favor, the measure heads to the ballot.

On the other hand, the effort to require unanimous juries is linked — philosophically, at least — with the criminal justice reforms Edwards helped to push through the Legislature in 2017. Those changes were aimed at curbing Louisiana’s status as the nation’s most-incarcerating state, with the highest percentage of its people in jail.

The group considering the reforms did not closely examine how a change to the split-verdicts law might change Louisiana’s incarceration rate. Experts believe that requiring unanimous verdicts would lower it, by removing a law that favors prosecutors, though how much of a difference it would make is uncertain.

Edwards said he thinks it’s time to bring Louisiana in line with the 48 other states that already insist on 12-0 verdicts in felony cases.

“I do believe we ought to pass this important bill in the Legislature and allow the people of Louisiana to consider it,” Edwards told The Advocate in a statement. “We are an outlier when we shouldn’t be, and there’s no reason to deviate from the norm. I believe it’s the right policy goal, and if you look at when and how the current law was implemented, its roots are not in keeping with the highest ideals of our state.”

The law is a product of the notoriously racist 1898 constitutional convention, whose stated purpose was to “establish the supremacy of the white race” in Louisiana.

While his views are now on the record, it’s not clear whether the governor intends to go any further — for instance, whether he will lobby for the measure. Richard Carbo, his deputy chief of staff, said the governor “will be signaling his support to the Legislature,” but that “his level of involvement beyond that is not certain at this time.”

It’s not clear at this point whether the governor’s involvement would help the measure. The bill has already been approved by the Senate, and now must clear the House by a two-thirds margin. Edwards’ relations with the House — and particularly the Republican caucus, which will provide the swing votes in either direction — have often been tense.