Vote “Yes” for Unanimous Juries in Louisiana

New Orleans        Louisiana is one of only two states in the US that allow split-verdict decisions by juries.  The other is Oregon.  What this means, simply put, is that being “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” does not exist for a conviction in these two states.  In every other state the entire jury has to be convinced of guilt.  In Louisiana and Oregon in felony cases only ten of twelve jurors have to agree.  The other two can have huge doubts and be unmoved by the majority, but the majority can send someone to their death, to life in prison, or whatever the judge might order.

There’s finally a ballot measure put on the ballot by the legislature, because they didn’t have the backbone to do the job of ending this injustice themselves.  If passed, the measure would end this practice dating back to the horror of the backlash in the South that pushed back, successfully, against post-Civil War Reconstruction.  The history of the split-verdict makes it impossible to ignore racism in full force and flower.  The law was originally passed in 1898.  Contemporary editorials at the time were clear about the climate, warning that allowing blacks on juries would give them a voice and a vote in jury deliberations, supposedly allowing criminals to go free.  Of course, ignoring the fact that disenfranchising African-Americans in the Jim Crow era also meant that the norm was more often all-white juries chosen from the registered voter pool in Louisiana which was stacked against allowing black voters, and embedded systemic racism in every jury decision.

A recent ruling in the 11th District Court in one small, largely rural area, Sabine Parish, found a judge finding the law unconstitutional because three African-Americans were excluded from the jury pool because of race leading to an 11-1 guilty verdict being appealed to his court.  Unfortunately, that decision only applies in Sabine Parish.  A Louisiana paper, The Advocate, had also done an analysis of jury trials throughout the state for a recent six-year period and found a hugely significant difference in the impact on black jurors and black defendants.  In almost 1000 convictions where the jury vote count was available, blacks were 30% more often convicted than white defendants by split-verdict juries.

The odds to get rid of this stain on the state look pretty good, but looks and voting are two different matters in this scarlet red state.  The Republican Attorney General Landry wants to keep the split-verdict decisions as do some prosecuting attorneys in the state who depend on their body count for re-election and their tough-on-crime branding.  The Governor, the states editorial writers, and the majority of political voices from both parties all favor Voting “Yes” on Amendment 2 and implementing unanimous jury decisions.

The problem is of course race or rather racism.  A mailer we received this week calling for VOTE YES ON 2 for Freedom and Fairness in an obviously deliberate choice featured six pictures of a white-haired white family and a blond family of four, also whiter than white.  Some campaigners must feel it’s better to whitewash this issue that remind people that a VOTE YES ON 2 erases part of the vestige of racist history in Louisiana.

One step at a time it seems, but either way, there are signs at our office and in front of our homes and everywhere we can put them.  It’s past time to VOTE YES ON 2, and join the rest of the country in requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials.

Come on up, Oregon.

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Leaders Assess Progress and Map Out Plans

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reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

Baton Rouge   Thirty Local 100 United Labor Union leaders gathered together for the 36th annual leadership conference for the union, this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leaders were there from Little Rock and Warren, Arkansas, Dallas and Houston, Lafayette and New Orleans, and points near and far in the three-state areas. We met in Local 100’s big 5000 plus foot union hall in Baton Rouge, so that the members could see first had what had been done to improve the space, and what still needed to be done. It was a hot, mid-90’s June day, but the 10-foot ceilings and thick cinderblock walls made the large meeting room pleasant with five fans running. That is not to say the leadership won’t take a harder look at the thousands needed to repair the air conditioner, but it was a lot better than people had any reason to expect. They were surprised, and I felt lucky, or as I reminded many of them, “tell me you can’t remember visiting your grandmother in the country and hearing the ceiling and attic fans humming?”

A lot of time in the morning was spent reviewing our progress on living wage campaigns or more accurately moving the minimum wages up. In Houston, we had success in both our Head Start unit as well as moving the ages up past $10 per hour for our cafeteria workers. The lesson we had learned, according to Houston office director, Orell Fitzsimmons, was to not try to grab all 30,000 workers in the district at once, but to concentrate on one segment after another. Having raised the hourly wage in the cafeteria, the union is now hunkering down to try to extend the hours from seven to eight to move people up more solidly. In Arkansas, the union with our allies are trying to push a statewide petition of workers and supporters to set the floor above $10 per hour. Winning an election could be difficult, but having our members who are state workers living in poverty is even harder. In Dallas and New Orleans there have been efforts that have met with some success at establishing levels past $10 per hour for subcontracted workers, but in those cities, especially New Orleans, the issue is enforcement. One cleaning contract we organized recently is now six-months overdue on paying the new city standard of $10.55 per hour. I can remember years ago a hotel union in San Jose-Monterrey saying they didn’t want to support our living wage fight because then why would workers need a union? It turns out part of the answer is: they would still need a union to actually get it!

On other fronts, the union is preparing campaigns to advocate to get lead tested and removed from schools and workplaces to protect our workers, children and clients. We are also going after nonprofit hospitals to hold them accountable for providing charity care, especially in Texas where there is no expanded Medicaid and elsewhere in our private sector contracts where the deductibles are pricing our members out of the company-sponsored plans and into the penalties for not having Obamacare.

Will we come up with the money to fix the air conditioner? I don’t know, but we’ll win some big campaigns because of leadership meetings just like this!

reports and campaign discussions in Baton Rouge Local 100 Union Hall

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