Interview: Pro bono work challenging non-unanimous jury convictions
Davis Polk Pro Bono Counsel for Racial Justice Initiatives Diane Lucas recently discussed the firm’s partnership with the nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI) on what Diane describes as “one of the most compelling sets of cases that we can work on in the racial justice space.”
Why did the Pro Bono team choose to work with PJI?
The Pro Bono team learned of PJI’s Jim Crow Juries: Unanimous Jury Project and immediately recognized one of the most compelling sets of cases that we can work on in the racial justice space. PJI has taken on an unconstitutional law that allowed people to be convicted even when the entire jury did not agree they were guilty. The majority of people in prison because of this law are black and brown. Most of our clients are incarcerated in the Louisiana prison Angola – a former plantation. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April 2020 in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that guilty verdicts for criminal trials be unanimous, 1,500 people became eligible to challenge their convictions. PJI found itself in desperate need of attorneys. It was an easy choice for our team to dive in.
In May of this year, the Supreme Court found that Ramos is not retroactive as a matter of federal constitutional law, but Louisiana is free to retroactively apply the jury-unanimity rule as a matter of state law. We are continuing our efforts to seek relief from the Louisiana courts and are advocating on behalf of our clients with the District Attorneys.
How many cases is our team taking on?
In the last several months, our team has expanded the cases we have taken on to 23 – a huge undertaking. Personally, I wanted to work on these cases because they are directly in line with my mandate for racial justice initiatives. My goal was to help build out this partnership so that we could take on more cases and support the lawyers who were already working hard to put the best case forward for our clients. Our team of 50+ includes Special Counsel for Pro Bono Sharon Katz and Pro Bono Counsel Dara Sheinfeld, who help to supervise the whole project.
Is there a particularly meaningful ongoing case or client outcome you would like to share?
On March 31, 2021, our client M.D. – convicted in 2008 by a non-unanimous jury and sentenced to life in prison plus 198 years – was resentenced to time served and released, having spent more than 18 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at hard labor. Having already served six years awaiting trial, M.D. was found guilty of three counts of armed robbery and sentenced under the Louisiana habitual offender statute. In February, our team and co-counsel from PJI requested a new trial for M.D. The New Orleans District Attorney’s Office offered to waive all objections to the motion and offered a deal in which M.D. pled guilty to a single count of armed robbery. The DA further agreed not to seek a sentence in excess of 25 years and not to pursue a habitual offender sentence. At the resentencing hearing, the judge cited M.D.’s work history and dedication to bettering himself through educational courses while incarcerated as evidence of his rehabilitation.
Learn more about Davis Polk’s Pro Bono program.