For years, defense lawyers in Orleans Parish have fought to have their clients’ indictments thrown out on claims that the system for selecting grand jurors was flawed by racial discrimination, the New Orleans Times-Picayune says. Prosecutors warned that a decision siding with the defense would “wreak havoc” at the courthouse. Imagine, they said, decades of convictions subject to reversal on appeals or requiring new indictments and trials.
Orleans Parish is about to find out whether havoc will strike. The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the local laws on grand jury selection in New Orleans violate the Louisiana Constitution. Parishes cannot enact their own special laws that concern the criminal justice system, the justices said unanimously. Until 2001, Orleans was the only place in Louisiana where a judge chose the grand jury, the panel that works in secret to decide whether to indict suspects on charges of murder, rape, robbery and drug dealing.
The ruling’s reach is anyone’s guess. The court was silent on whether its decision will affect past cases. Many defense lawyers are sifting through their caseloads to see whether they can apply the decision to clients who are awaiting trial or have been convicted. “It throws the district attorney’s office and the judges into a quagmire,” said A.F. “Sonny” Armond, a defense lawyer who has fought against the Orleans selection process since 1998.
District Attorney Eddie Jordan, however, said, “We don’t believe it affects that many cases.”. The impact of the decision is limited to pending cases indicted before August 2001, he said. Convicts can’t use the ruling to win a new trial, Jordan’s office said.