Ahead of Supreme Court's decision on split juries, New Orleans DA tackles his 'Jim Crow office'

Ahead of Supreme Court's decision on split juries, New Orleans DA tackles 'Jim Crow office.'

5/10/2021 4:39:00 AM

Ahead of Supreme Court's decision on split juries, New Orleans DA tackles 'Jim Crow office.'

Jason Williams vacated convictions in February of nearly two dozen people found guilty by nonunanimous verdicts. It's only the beginning, he says.

.Williams said last week it was important not to wait for the expected Supreme Court ruling and signal to the community that his office had a central role in"rebuilding trust" when he launched the"Undoing Jim Crow Jury Civil Rights Initiative."

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"New Orleans had been ground zero for the unfairness of the criminal justice system," he said. But the message now is"this DA's office would no longer be a Jim Crow office."Determining eligible cases and whether they warrant a new trial can be burdensome.

It requires verifying that the defendant was convicted by a nonunanimous jury. Then prosecutors must review the strength of the initial evidence that helped the jurors come to their guilty verdict, as well as determine whether jurors disagreed or had questions over the length of the defendant's sentence. And there's the issue of whether the DA's office even has the ability to still bring the case to trial, given that witnesses and victims may no longer be alive or available. headtopics.com

Then there are cases with incomplete records, Williams said, not to mention the difficulty of working in a court system experiencing a backlog of thousands of open cases amid thecoronavirus pandemic."This work, undoing something that we can all uniformly agree is unfair and making it fair, it's too important," he said.

The initiative has already changed lives.Williams points to the case of Jermaine Hudson, who was released this spring fromLouisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, after serving more than 20 years of a 99-year armed robbery sentence. Hudson, 42, who was convicted in 2000 by a 10-2 jury vote has long maintained his innocence.

Jermaine Hudson, pictured with his fiancée, Latinya Darensbourg, won his freedom from a Louisiana prison in March 2021.The Promise of Justice InitiativeWilliams had agreed to grant Hudson a new trial as part of his Jim Crow jury initiative. Hudson was going to plead guilty to robbery in exchange for a sentence of time served, but an unexpected twist took even prosecutors by surprise: Hudson's accuser came forward to recant his testimony.

Prosecutors said the accuser did not know about Hudson's opportunity to be released and acknowledged in an affidavit that he had lied, having randomly picked him out from a lineup. Williams dismissed the charges against Hudson, who said of his accuser,"I forgive him. It has been 22 years but I forgive him with a pure heart." headtopics.com

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Williams added:"Lord knows there are many, many more Jermaine Hudsons — in the ground, in boxes in Angola, who died for crimes they did not commit."Sept. 5, 201910:44But as he anticipates more vacated convictions from split jury verdicts and gears up for new trials, that also means reaching out to affected crime victims or their loved ones to ensure they aren't blindsided.

Instead of waiting to see how the Supreme Court will eventually rule, Williams said,"by doing it this way, it gives us many months to reach out to victims.""This is more humane letting them know what's going on with the process than just waiting and sending out a bunch of letters," he added.

Victims' rights advocates have expressed concern that loved ones of those victims have fallen through the cracks.The mother of a New Orleans police officer who was killed during a 2002 barroom robberytold local medialast month that she was"shocked" to learn one of the defendants in the case had been released from prison after his case was reexamined by the DA's office. The defendant had been convicted on an 11-1 jury vote.

Williams' office had put out a statement sympathizing with her, while also condemning a"criminal legal system that has failed this community." Read more: NBC News »

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