Debate in the House Criminal Justice committee Wednesday was focused on how to untangle a Louisiana law from the the racial injustice that produced it over a century ago.
At the center of it all was a bill by Sen. JP Morrell (D-New Orleans).
“The non-unanimous jury was part of a process in our official journal," explained Sen. Morrell, referencing the 1898 Louisiana constitutional convention, "where it was said 'the mission of this convention was to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state.'"
By requiring only 10 of 12 jurors to decide a case, prosecutors could select a mostly white jury and still get a conviction. Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states that allow non-unanimous juries.
If the Legislature approves the bill, voters would decide whether juries in the state have to reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict someone of a felony. If it becomes law, it would apply to crimes committed after Jan. 1, 2019.
But it’s getting some opposition from district attorneys, like John DeRosier of Calcasieu Parish.
“I’ve heard a lot about this system being adopted as a result, a vestige of slavery. I have no reason to doubt that. I’m not proud of that, that that’s the way it started, but it is what it is," he said.
That comment drew an emotional response from several African American lawmakers, including Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge).
“I am so utterly offended for you to start your comments and say, ‘I know that this was rooted in slavery, but it is what it is.’ And I needed you to hear that from me," Rep. James told the Calcasieu District Attorney.
Sen. Morrell says the racist roots of the law cannot be ignored. And he urged lawmakers to address it.
“We’re beyond this as a state. We shouldn’t be defined by this. This type of thing holds our state back,” he said.
The bill passed the committee without objection.