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Citizens Organize To Inform Community About Unanimous Jury Amendment

Wallis Watkins

About 40 people gathered Wednesday evening at a New Orleans Labor Union hall to coordinate voter registration outreach efforts, and to educate people on a ballot initiative this fall that could change Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury rule.

Ben Zucker is the co-director and co-founder of “Step Up Louisiana”, a community organization that works for economic justice. He polls the crowd, “Who here lives in Louisiana?” Everyone raises their hands.

Then Zucker says, “Keep your hands up if you know anybody who’s ever been incarcerated for anything.”

Most of the people at the community meeting keep their hands in the air; they know someone who’s been in prison.

But some didn’t know that Louisiana is one of only two states - the other being Oregon - that allow a non-unanimous jury to convict someone of a felony. A ballot initiative this fall could change that - and require a unanimous jury for conviction.

Zakiyyah Abdul-Aleen came to the meeting to learn more after a family member told her about the law.

“I thought it was important for me to get more knowledge on it and to potentially educate other family members and friends regarding it,” she says.

Also at the meeting is Kiana Calloway. He knows about the law - and the proposed amendment. Calloway was convicted twice by non-unanimous juries.  The first was an 11-1 verdict for first degree murder, when, at the age of 16, he was given two life-sentences. Calloway was granted a retrial by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; he was convicted by a 10-2 verdict and given a 34 year sentence.

Calloway spent 17 years in prison for crimes he says he didn’t commit, on conviction by non-unanimous juries. Now, 7 years into his 17 year parole, he says his opportunities are limited because of his record.

“My conviction has kind of limited my employment opportunities, it limits my housing opportunities, it limits my medicaid opportunities and also my education opportunities,” Calloway says.

The unanimous jury amendment will be on the November 6th statewide ballot, requiring a simple majority to pass. If it becomes law, it would go into effect on January 1, 2019. Because changing the law won’t be retroactive, it won’t help guys like Kiana Calloway - but Calloway hopes by raising awareness, he can help others.

“It takes a jury of your peers - unanimously - to know that you actually committed a crime,” he says, “It states in the book, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ If one person believes that you did not commit that crime then I think that they should bring it back and try it again, or let this guy go if one person feels or believes that he didn’t commit that crime.”

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