December 14, 2018

VSU Professor’s Research Proves to be Catalyst for Toppling Jim Crow-Era Law in Louisiana

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University’s Dr. Thomas Aiello wrote a book in 2015 on a little-known Louisiana law rooted in Jim Crow-era racism. His research led to Louisiana voters overturning that 140-year-old law in the November 2018 midterm elections, making a historic change to the state’s court system.

Aiello’s 2015 book, “Jim Crow's Last Stand,” explores the Louisiana law that allowed defendants in criminal trials to be convicted with a nonunanimous jury. When Aiello wrote the book, Louisiana was one of only two states that didn’t require a unanimous jury for criminal convictions.

Aiello’s research reveals the law’s racist roots, which stretch all the way back to the years right after the Civil War.

“After Reconstruction, white southerners were trying to reinstitute a version of slavery,” said Aiello, professor of history and African-American studies. “This is when they start passing the first Jim Crow laws, which were full of racial restrictions and segregation. They start doing all of these things in an attempt to regain control of black lives and black bodies in various ways.

“But of course one of the main things you want to do if you want to reimpose a version of slavery is to get free labor back. So they used the one loophole that exists in the 13th amendment that says we’re not allowed to keep people in bondage unless they’re convicted of a crime. They figure if they’re going to get free labor back, they need to start convicting people of crimes. So they do.

“It becomes known as convict-lease. Throughout the South, white southerners start arresting former slaves en masse and then leasing them out as free labor to plantations and railroads and coal mines.

“They have to figure out a way to feed the beast, so they start convicting poor and vulnerable black people on trumped up charges and putting these people in jail. They arrest black defendants on charges like vagrancy and public drunkenness and make them into felonies.

“To make sure they can get away with these crazy convictions, white southerners changed the Louisiana state law in 1880 to make juries only require nine out of 12 jurors for a conviction. That law ends up being codified in the state’s constitution in 1898 and it continued up to the present.”

Aiello said one-fourth of registered voters in Louisiana at the time were black, so the nonunanimous jury law also ensured the votes of black jurors didn’t count.

The law was changed in 1973 to require 10 out of 12 jurors for a conviction. It remained in place up to the present, the last surviving Jim Crow law in the South — until Aiello decided to do something about it.

A native of Louisiana, Aiello said he never even knew the law existed until he was a history professor at VSU.

“They never publicized it,” he said. “They never talked about it. And anytime it was mentioned, it was always made out to be just one of the state’s little idiosyncrasies that isn’t hurting anyone.

“Meanwhile, 40 percent of people who are convicted of crimes in Louisiana are convicted on less than unanimous juries. That’s why Louisiana has the highest conviction rate of any place on earth, including Iran and China.” 

After scouring law libraries and courthouse archives and tracing the law back to its racially charged origins, Aiello wrote “Jim Crow’s Last Stand,” which spotlighted the issue of Louisiana’s nonunanimous juries like never before. 

“When the book came out, most people in Louisiana were just like me and didn’t realize this was a thing,” he said. “You just assume that you have to get 12 jurors — but not in Louisiana. I’ve met several people who were wrongly incarcerated for more than 20 years on a 10-2 verdict, where in any other state they would’ve gotten off.”

Aiello’s book started gaining traction after its release. Lawyers and politicians picked up on it and began discussing the issue, leading Louisiana’s state legislature to pass a bill in early 2018 that changed the law to require unanimous juries for criminal convictions. They had to wait for voters to approve or deny the change in the November midterm elections.

Aiello was asked in July 2018 to testify about the law in a criminal murder appeal in Louisiana. For four hours, he explained the law’s racist history, leading the judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

In the months before the midterms, the movement sparked by Aiello’s research grew even larger. Coalitions were formed and volunteers started canvassing the state to encourage voters to approve the change to unanimous juries.

Aiello went on a speaking tour at various universities throughout the state, and he was featured in many high-profile media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Law, and NPR.

The new law requiring unanimous juries received widespread bipartisan support, and on Nov. 6, 2018, voters approved the change overwhelmingly.

“It passed with two-thirds of the votes,” Aiello said. “It was a big win.”

The law is not retroactive, meaning any convictions prior to the change will have to go through an appeals process, but any convictions moving forward will be backed by a unanimous jury.

“There was no reason for me to expect that this would happen,” Aiello said. “As historians, we love doing what we do, but it’s very rare when something we do actually changes something in the present. This has been so wonderful.

“All of these people didn’t even know that this was a thing a few years ago. I was rooting for everyone to do the right thing, and they did. They all ended up agreeing that this was a bad thing, that it was a stain on Louisiana, and that they needed to get rid of it.”

A revised and expanded edition of “Jim Crow’s Last Stand” will be released in 2019. Aiello, whose specialty is cultural and intellectual African-American history, has written multiple books, his latest being “The Grapevine of the Black South,” which explores black newspapers in the mid-20th century. 

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