Jim Crow’s Last Stand
Jul 22, 2019
The legacy of Jim Crow continues to loom large in the United States. But nowhere is it arguably more evident than in Louisiana. In 1898, a constitutional convention successfully codified a slew of Jim Crow laws in a flagrant effort to disenfranchise black voters and otherwise infringe on their rights. “Our 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,” wrote Judiciary Committee Chairman Thomas Semmes.
One of these laws sought to maintain white supremacy in state courtrooms. In response to the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which required the state to include black people on juries, Louisiana lawmakers and voters ratified a nonunanimous-jury law. This meant that a split jury—a verdict of 11–1 or 10–2—could convict a defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The law was designed to marginalize black jurors on majority-white juries, and many believe that it has contributed to the state’s status as the prison capital of the world. (Until 2017, Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate in the nation.)
“Nonunanimous juries are a vestige of Jim Crow,” says William Snowden, a member of the Unanimous Jury Coalition, in Sean Mattison’s short documentary Jim Crow’s Last Stand. The rousing film captures the efforts of the group to pass Louisiana Amendment 2, a bipartisan measure on the midterm ballot to eliminate nonunanimous-jury convictions in felony trials. In November, 64 percent of Louisianans voted yes.
“This was a real vindication of all of their hard work, as well as a statewide indictment of a law that had unjustly imprisoned innocent people for over 100 years,” Mattison told me.
In the film, some members of the coalition share stories of their experiences with the Louisiana criminal-justice system. Norris Henderson, the state director of the Unanimous Jury Coalition, was sentenced by a split jury to life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He served 27 years in Angola, where he became a jailhouse lawyer, proved his innocence, and had his sentence overturned.
“First time the jury came back, it was 7–5,” says a Coalition volunteer, Auva Paxton, of her trial. “But seven convinced three to come to their side, and it became 10–2.”
Mattison said that making the film reaffirmed his belief in telling underreported stories. “There are a large number of stories like this one that deserve more attention,” he said, “particularly when it comes to criminal-justice reform. That seems to be one of the only areas where bipartisanship is still possible.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.