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Former Angola inmate fighting for unanimous juries in Louisiana

Posted at 10:19 PM, Oct 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-15 18:21:33-04

In November, Louisiana voters will decide if juries must reach a unanimous verdict to convict someone on trial for a felony. Louisiana is one of only two states that does not require a unanimous verdict. Oregon is the other.

Right now, only ten of twelve jurors are required to reach a guilty verdict.

Norris Henderson, who spent over twenty-five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, says the current law changed his life for the worse.

Henderson spent nearly thirty years of his life behind bars at Angola after ten out of ten jurors said he was guilty. Norris now dedicates his life to fighting until he sees Louisiana join the majority of states with the unanimous verdict laws.

“I stayed in prison twenty-seven years, ten months and eighteen days, technically, for a crime I didn’t commit,” Henderson said.

In1974, Norris believed that since two jurors found him not guilty, he would be released.

“I had a 10-2 verdict, and at the time of the verdict, I was, like, 19-years-old, and when the verdict came back and the lawyer polled the jury, they were, like, 10 people for and 2 against. I was like, ‘I’m going home,'” Henderson explained.

Henderson didn’t go home. Instead, he spent nearly three decades at Angola. For twenty of those years, he worked in the law library to learn more about his case.

In 1986,  twelve years after he was sent to prison, he got a copy of the police report after the state law made it a public record. He learned that the person identified in that report was already sitting in prison.

“I’ve read cases where prosecutors end their closing arguments, telling jurors, ‘I don’t need but ten of y’all.’ And so, you figure if it’s a contentious case and the first they do a poll and they get 10 people, it’s ballgame, over,” Henderson said. “There is no need to try and convince nobody else about whether or not here we go or we stay.”

Attorney Frank Neuner has done work with the Innocence Project of New Orleans. He says the change is necessary.

“To me, its a blight on Louisiana that we need to cure. The other forty-eight states have unanimous juries in felony cases, and our country was founded. John Adams has a famous quote about unanimous juries’ preserve liberty, and I just think it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right time,” Neuner expressed.

Henderson agrees.

“The other forty-eight states… no one else is having problems getting convictions. I tell people all the time it’s from the facts come to the law. If you have facts, that’s where the law comes from and not the other way around,” he said.

According to the Unanimous Jury Coalition, more than forty percent of wrongful convictions in the last five years in Louisiana came from nonunanimous juries. Louisiana also ranks highest for exonerations in the United States.

Despite bipartisan support for the amendment, Attorney General Jeff Landry has been a vocal opponent.

KATC reached out to Landry’s office for comment. They referred us to an Advocate article from August. In the article, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Wilbur Stiles, says the current law “has a positive effect on the criminal system.” He also said it “makes running the system quicker and easier.”

Election day is November 6. For more information on where to vote and how to register, go to GeauxVote. Online voter registration ends Tuesday, October 16 for the November 6th election.

View sample ballots here.