Did Outdated Laws in Louisiana Help Convict an Innocent Man?

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Jury box. Photo by Patrick Feller, via Flickr

In Louisiana, non-unanimous juries are able to convict someone of a felony, thanks to a law that legal experts call outdated and potentially dangerous.

Photo of Troy Rhodes provided by the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center

Such is the case of Troy Rhodes, a 37-year- old African-American man who was convicted by a 10-2 jury verdict in New Orleans for armed robbery and attempted murder and sent to prison for 149 years for two crimes he may not have committed.

“Louisiana’s jury law just has no place in the modern criminal justice system,” said Pamela R. Metzger, inaugural director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU School of Law, in an interview with The Crime Report.

Metzger said that non-unanimous juries were created over 120 years ago to ensure a white majority on juries.

“We as a society should want every single eyewitness case in which there was a non unanimous jury to be re-evaluated,” she said.

Significantly, Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states in the country with the law on their books.

But in early April, the Louisiana state senate advanced a bill that would require unanimous juries for all convictions in felony trials. The fate of the measure has moved to the House, where Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, has filed an identical bill. Should the proposal go to voters and be approved, it would require unanimity starting Jan. 1, 2019.

However for Rhodes, the questionable jury was not the only barrier.

The witness, who was the only eyewitness in the case, identified Rhodes as the perpetrator, but was under medication when he made the identification. Yet the public defender never confronted the witness with his medical records or asked for his medical records to be shown to the jury.

Why? Because the public defender wasn’t in the position to do the work that should’ve been done, said Metzger.

Public defenders in 2003 (the year of Rhodes’ trial) were understaffed, underpaid, and under-resourced, and it wasn’t until after hurricane Katrina hit in 2007 that the public defender system was revamped, she said.

Unfortunately for Rhodes, his public defender was overworked and under- resourced, creating problems during the trial.

For instance, the singe eye witness was a white man, which raises questions about cross-racial examination, but the public defender did not bring this issue to the attention of the jury.

Consequently, Rhodes found himself in the middle of what Metzger calls “a perfect storm” of injustice due to laws in Louisiana that actively worked against him, as well as problems with witness identification, and an underfunded public defender.

Troy Rhodes’ son wrote a letter to the judge asking for his “paw to come home.” Image from court documents

This “perfect storm” of injustice led the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU Law School to take on Rhodes case when Metzger became the Center’s Director, and Tuesday morning, they announced that they would be seeking the release of Troy Rhodes in a case that “amplifies the need for justice reform.”

Now, the power lies in the hands of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to overturn Rhodes’ conviction.

Photo of Troy Rhodes and his family

“This case presents an opportunity for the DA to face forward”, said Metzger. “To acknowledge what we know about best practices about identification and trials. It’s an opportunity for him to do the right thing in a way that he might not have had otherwise.”

Rhodes, while waiting in prison, obtained a four-year degree in Christian Ministry and a technical certificate in the culinary arts. He has also obtained the highest level of trust in the prison and is now a minister in the west prison yard, where he helps to manage conflicts with other prisoners.

His family eagerly awaits his homecoming.

Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report.

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