When Jason Williams took office as New Orleans' top prosecutor in January, he said it came with a mandate to overhaul the way criminal cases are handled in a city long plagued by crime.
But he didn't just start with cases moving forward. He also wanted to look back: to the trials of people convicted by nonunanimous juries, a practice rooted in the Jim Crow era and devised to deny equal representation to Black residents of Louisiana in the courts and essentially invalidate votes of Black jurors.
Williams, 48, a Black Democrat, assembled a team of experienced investigators and younger, dogged lawyers to begin reviewing hundreds of cases under the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office. In February, the office vacated convictions of nearly two dozen people who had been found guilty by split verdicts in cases from 1974 to 2014 and involving crimes such as armed robbery, carjacking and murder. In the majority of those cases, the defendants agreed to plead guilty, but are seeking reduced sentences, while others would be re-prosecuted and tried in a "constitutional, nonracist manner," the DA's office said.
While Williams said his office is continuing on its "painstaking" path to reevaluate cases — an estimated 340 of them are in New Orleans — a highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the coming weeks would decide whether its previous finding that makes nonunanimous juries unconstitutional should also be applied retroactively to defendants who had exhausted their appeals. That previous case, known as Ramos v. Louisiana, was decided in April 2020.
A 2020 report by The Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit justice advocacy group in New Orleans, found that 80 percent of the more than 1,500 inmates incarcerated in Louisiana by a split jury are Black and most are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Williams said last week it was important not to wait for the expected Supreme Court ruling and signal to the community that his office had a central role in "rebuilding trust" when he launched the "Undoing Jim Crow Jury Civil Rights Initiative."
"New Orleans had been ground zero for the unfairness of the criminal justice system," he said. But the message now is "this DA's office would no longer be a Jim Crow office."
Determining eligible cases and whether they warrant a new trial can be burdensome.
It requires verifying that the defendant was convicted by a nonunanimous jury. Then prosecutors must review the strength of the initial evidence that helped the jurors come to their guilty verdict, as well as determine whether jurors disagreed or had questions over the length of the defendant's sentence. And there's the issue of whether the DA's office even has the ability to still bring the case to trial, given that witnesses and victims may no longer be alive or available.
Then there are cases with incomplete records, Williams said, not to mention the difficulty of working in a court system experiencing a backlog of thousands of open cases amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"This work, undoing something that we can all uniformly agree is unfair and making it fair, it's too important," he said.
Progress and roadblocks
The initiative has already changed lives.
Williams points to the case of Jermaine Hudson, who was released this spring from Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, after serving more than 20 years of a 99-year armed robbery sentence. Hudson, 42, who was convicted in 2000 by a 10-2 jury vote has long maintained his innocence.
Williams had agreed to grant Hudson a new trial as part of his Jim Crow jury initiative. Hudson was going to plead guilty to robbery in exchange for a sentence of time served, but an unexpected twist took even prosecutors by surprise: Hudson's accuser came forward to recant his testimony.
Prosecutors said the accuser did not know about Hudson's opportunity to be released and acknowledged in an affidavit that he had lied, having randomly picked him out from a lineup. Williams dismissed the charges against Hudson, who said of his accuser, "I forgive him. It has been 22 years but I forgive him with a pure heart."
Williams added: "Lord knows there are many, many more Jermaine Hudsons — in the ground, in boxes in Angola, who died for crimes they did not commit."
But as he anticipates more vacated convictions from split jury verdicts and gears up for new trials, that also means reaching out to affected crime victims or their loved ones to ensure they aren't blindsided.
Instead of waiting to see how the Supreme Court will eventually rule, Williams said, "by doing it this way, it gives us many months to reach out to victims."
"This is more humane letting them know what's going on with the process than just waiting and sending out a bunch of letters," he added.
Victims' rights advocates have expressed concern that loved ones of those victims have fallen through the cracks.
The mother of a New Orleans police officer who was killed during a 2002 barroom robbery told local media last month that she was "shocked" to learn one of the defendants in the case had been released from prison after his case was reexamined by the DA's office. The defendant had been convicted on an 11-1 jury vote.
Williams' office had put out a statement sympathizing with her, while also condemning a "criminal legal system that has failed this community."
He vowed last week that his office will elicit input from surviving victims or families of victims, as well as offer services to help them deal with the repeated trauma that a retrial presents.
A progressive agenda
Williams, a defense attorney and former New Orleans city council president, won a runoff race in December on a platform of criminal justice reform.
He pledged to reform the cash bail system, decline most low-level drug offenses and move away from procedural objections to a defendant's appeal, particularly if claims of wrongful conviction, racial discrimination or systemic injustice are involved.
But his ambitions and progressive agenda, an outlier in the Deep South, are also in jeopardy. He faces his own trial later this year on federal tax fraud charges against him and his law firm partner in an indictment that made headlines during the DA race. Williams pleaded not guilty in July and has denied any wrongdoing, calling the case politically motivated and blaming his tax preparer.
Those supportive of Williams say his work is too important to be overshadowed by the allegations.
"To have a district attorney who is willing to have conversations about people impacted by nonunanimous juries even prior to the Supreme Court decision has been really rewarding," said Jamila Johnson, a managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at The Promise of Justice Initiative.
Johnson represented Hudson and other defendants who were found to be eligible for new trials.
The legacy of split juries in Louisiana dates to 1898, when state lawmakers affirmed during a constitutional convention to allow verdicts in noncapital felonies in which only nine out of 12 jurors agree. According to one official at the convention, their mission was "to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done."
In 1974, the state ratified its Constitution again to require that at least 10 out of 12 jurors agree on a verdict. But in 2018, Louisiana voters, supported by civil rights and civil liberties groups, overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to force unanimous jury decisions in all felony trials or otherwise consider jurors deadlocked. The change, however, did not apply retroactively, and the Supreme Court agreed to take up the issue again in December.
Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill, representing the state, argued to the high court that a retroactive ruling would unsettle thousands of cases and that "requiring new trials in long-final criminal cases would be impossible in some, and particularly unfair to the victims of these crimes."
Only one other state, Oregon, has historically allowed the use of split juries in most serious crimes.
Louisiana state Rep. Randal Gaines, a Democrat and member of the Legislative Black Caucus, introduced a bill this session that would allow anyone incarcerated by a split jury to file for post-conviction relief over a three-year period and pave the way for a new trial.
Gaines said he is awaiting the high court's decision before pushing the legislation forward.
"The intent of it is not to grant freedom to anyone that was justifiably convicted," he added. "It would grant the opportunity of a new trial under a much more fairer system ... and not a system that was created to convict and incarcerate a higher number of Blacks."
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association, which supports the rights of crime victims, says that while it fully backs the use of unanimous juries, the hundreds of cases of already convicted defendants must not be taken lightly and includes serious felonies of which 60 percent are believed to be homicides.
There are "obvious challenges" in retrying decades-old cases in which evidence and witnesses may not be available and the feelings of crime victims must be considered, Loren Lampert, the association's executive director, said Friday in an email. Lampert also expressed concern about how trials would play out in a system "already overwhelmed with a backlog created by the pandemic and a 42 percent increase in homicide cases — which shows no signs of abating."
While Lampert did not address Williams' efforts in New Orleans specifically, he said that irrespective of the way the Supreme Court rules, Louisiana district attorneys are duty-bound "to assure that justice is done" if there's reliable evidence that racial or other injustices affected the outcome of a trial.
Last month, The Promise of Justice Initiative and its pro bono partners said they have filed more than 1,000 petitions in Louisiana requesting new trials for people convicted by split juries in light of the Supreme Court's 2020 ruling that forbids the practice.
Johnson said the work to locate all qualifying cases can be slow-going in jurisdictions where records haven't been properly kept and even jury slips — the documents that declare how jurors voted — have gone missing.
Williams said his office won't be deterred as it follows in the wave of other reform-minded district attorneys nationwide shaking up the justice system in new ways.
He added: "This is a pendulum shift."