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What 'Edwards V. Vannoy' Case Means For People Convicted By Jim Crow Jury

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

They're called Jim Crow jury laws. They allow a jury that is not unanimous to convict someone of a crime. And until recently, they were still on the books in Oregon and Louisiana.

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CLARENCE THOMAS: What role do you think that the sordid roots of the non-unanimous jury rule in Louisiana should play in our analysis?

CORNISH: That's Justice Clarence Thomas from Wednesday when the Supreme Court heard another case on these laws. The court already declared these Jim Crow jury laws unconstitutional in April. What's at stake now is whether that should be retroactive, whether the people still imprisoned by a non-unanimous verdict must face a new trial. Jamila Johnson argues for this. She's managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project. That's at the Promise of Justice Initiative in Louisiana. Welcome to the program.

JAMILA JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: I want to come back to this quote from Justice Thomas, who talked about the sordid roots of the non-unanimous jury rule. What are the roots of that system?

JOHNSON: Jim Crow juries were created in 1898 specifically to circumvent the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They wanted to silence the voices of Black jurors and make it easier to send Black people to prison. The original constitutional convention was held explicitly for the purpose of establishing the supremacy of the white race. Lawmakers at that same convention put in place laws that prevented Black Louisianans from voting, segregated the schools and silenced Black jurors.

CORNISH: Now, your organization found that 80% of these people convicted under Jim Crow juries in your state are Black, which essentially affirms that this system very much impacts people today.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. There are over 1,500 men and women who remain in Louisiana's prisons today who were convicted with these unconstitutional and racist practices.

CORNISH: Now, Ramos v. Louisiana - this case was decided this April - deemed these juries unconstitutional. And Evangelisto Ramos was actually your firm's client. What can you tell us about that case?

JOHNSON: That case involved a gentleman who was facing a life without the possibility of parole sentence, like 62% of the men and women who remain in Louisiana's prisons with these convictions.

CORNISH: Right. He had been convicted of murder on a 10-to-2 count.

JOHNSON: He had. And for him, going to the U.S. Supreme Court was incredibly important. It got him a new trial. But for the more than 1,500 men and women who had final convictions, they are really dependent on what happened in the Ramos case to apply to them. I think most people assume that when the U.S. Supreme Court says that something is unconstitutional that the Supreme Court will also provide a remedy. Historically, that hasn't been a guarantee. And the case before the U.S. Supreme Court now is to decide whether to give those men and women a remedy for their convictions.

CORNISH: Top law officials in Louisiana and Oregon have both said that retroactively applying the Ramos case would be harmful or unnecessary or would strain their judicial systems, right? I mean, how do you respond to that concern?

JOHNSON: The Promise of Justice Initiative provided a friend of the court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that showed that it would increase the workload for district attorneys about, on average, two additional cases. Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the country. With the many trials that happen, this is a small percentage. And frankly, for the other 48 states, when they took a case to trial and they were unable to get a unanimous verdict, they retried those cases or decided not to retry those cases. The state of Oregon and the state of Louisiana shouldn't get a benefit for having a racist law on their books.

CORNISH: What could this decision mean for the people who potentially could benefit from a retrial, right? If this case goes their way, and you represent defendants like this, what would that mean for their cases?

JOHNSON: It means a chance at justice and at fairness. For them, it means whether they will get to return home and be fathers and be mothers and be children and brothers and sisters. For people who are serving these very long sentences, this is potentially their last hope. I think it's hard for the men and women who are in Louisiana's prison system to see all of the changes that are happening in our country right now and the conversations about race and be in a spot where it's still uncertain whether after the U.S. Supreme Court says that they were convicted by a racist and unconstitutional practice that they might still spend the rest of their lives in prison.

CORNISH: Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project. That's at the Promise of Justice Initiative in Louisiana. Thank you for your time.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.