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The ‘disproportionate, inequitable justice’ of non-unanimous jury verdicts

For more on the issue of split-verdict juries from our signature segment, wrongful convictions, and the inequities in the American criminal justice system, New Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams joined Hari Sreenivasan to discuss, including what happens to those convicted using this now-outlawed practice.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to join us for a conversation. Her office told us she is holding off on interviews as she awaits more guidance on the Supreme Court's ruling on retroactivity. New Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams did accept our invitation and joined me recently from his office in New Orleans.

    Give me some perspective of how race has factored into the relationships that the citizens have with what they would consider justice.

  • Jason Williams:

    We are the incarceration capital of the world. The United States leads in incarceration. Louisiana leads the country. And the city of New Orleans is responsible for most of those bodies in the state penitentiary. We also lead, here in New Orleans, in the number of exonerations, meaning the wrong person was arrested, an innocent person sat in jail while the real perpetrator was left out on the city streets. We also have some of the highest rates of violent crime. So what you see is this sort of disproportionate, inequitable justice has led us down a pathway of rendering us less safe. So we've been unfair. We've been unsafe, and our project of undoing Jim Crow juries is about delivering that fairness and equity to start to rebuild trust.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We hear this term of wrongful conviction. When you give these individuals new trials, are you essentially implying that they were wrongfully convicted even though they were convicted with the rules that were written in place at the time?

  • Jason Williams:

    No, what I would say, when you're talking about a split-jury verdict is that an individual, guilty and innocent, did not have due process, did not have the same fairness they would have gotten in another state because of that 1898 constitutional convention. And so the same way that a police officer can bring a guilty man or an innocent man, a guilty or innocent man or woman can also not have had a fair shake in our criminal legal system. We don't even use the word criminal justice system in this office because the system has not lived up to that for every one. Right. Now, we will also be looking at wrongful convictions. When I talk about a wrongful conviction, I'm speaking of a person that was innocent of the crime that they committed and that there's evidence, whether it be DNA, or new evidence or a witness, to show that someone else committed that crime.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how are you messaging this? How are you trying to get the word out about what it is that you're doing, what it is that you're trying to accomplish?

  • Jason Williams:

    We're following up on the work of a robust conglomeration of stakeholders who got in this fight before 2018 to educate the entire state on the poison, on the racism, on the white supremacy that was behind these non-unanimous juries. We're sharing our effort with the public, with the media, so that people understand that they are also playing a part in this process, not just our office. So we've got to make sure that we're looking at this thing from every angle. This is not a panacea. It's not a silver bullet to deal with the injustices in our system. It is us dealing with one bucket of injustice in the city of New Orleans.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So none of this is a get out of jail free card, to be clear. You are just granting them a new opportunity at a trial, right?

  • Jason Williams:

    Hari, you're absolutely correct. Justice isn't just about guilt or innocence, it's not just about how long a person stays in jail, but is ensuring fairness and creating a system that serves all people due process. We're just making sure that fairness and justice apply to everyone. A lot of these votes, 16 out of the 22 you brought up have pled guilty to the same crime or a lesser from within two weeks of undoing those non-unanimous juries.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, I know you're just starting with these 22 cases, there are likely hundreds more cases, not just in New Orleans, but across Louisiana. What do you say to the families of the victims who are probably struggling to process this and put this behind them, but this is now maybe reopening a wound?

  • Jason Williams:

    It absolutely is reopening the wound, and that is why we have hired more victim witness advocates to reach out to victims and family members to explain to them what happened in 2018, when the state overwhelmingly voted to fix this and what happened at the Supreme Court when a very conservative court made it abundantly clear that this was one of the last pillars of Jim Crow, a lot of them overwhelmingly voted for the law to be changed and didn't realize that it would be affecting their cases. Retroactivity has not been specifically addressed by the court. But you've got to be really clear when the highest court in the land says that a law was based on racism to marginalize certain voices so that you could more easily convict Black people. I think the message is very clear and we're acting on it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What happens if a jury finds someone not guilty of a lesser charge or perhaps of the charge that the prosecutor thought that they could bring to trial? How do you make up for the lost time that these people have spent in jail?

  • Jason Williams:

    You can't make up for the lost time, which is why we are very proactively dealing with this and not waiting another year to see how the Supreme Court decides retroactivity. If it is racist, if it is unfair, it is our job to make it fair. You can't give time back after you've stolen it from a person. But what we can do is start to rebuild trust with a community that knows it was not getting a fair shake for decades.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is the measure of the impact that you are looking to have? I mean, if this project and others that you're going to launch are part of trying to rebuild trust in a community, to get them to trust law enforcement and have faith in the justice system, what do you think we should be looking at two years from now? Four years from now?

  • Jason Williams:

    Number one, when we talk about the split-jury verdicts, those aren't the only vestiges of racism in our criminal legal system. We can look to bail bond practices. We can look to overuse of the habitual offender laws to give minorities more time. And what I would ask you to look at in the next months, next five years would be what impact is happening on the functioning of our criminal legal system. Are more people willing to participate in this system, willing to come to court and testify and participate when crimes occur in their community. Is violent crime going down? Right. And I think those are going to be the numbers that you're going to see, which is why we're being very transparent with our numbers so that people can read our work and realize that this is not reform for reform sake, but this is reform to deliver more public safety to this community.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    New Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Jason Williams:

    Thank you, Hari.

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