NEW ORLEANS — The halls of justice in New Orleans were silent on Tuesday.
This comes one day after Criminal District Court Chief Judge Robin Pittman announced in a letter to the advocacy group Voice of The Experienced (VOTE) that no juries would be called until at least March.
VOTE raised concerns about the court’s current practice of automatically excluding convicted felons from serving on a jury.
That’s a violation of a recent state law, coauthored by Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans.
“We want trial to proceed swiftly and as quickly as possible so that justice is served,” Duplessis said. “But I think taking a temporary pause to get it right, is the right thing to do.”
The law allows felons to serve on juries if they have been off probation or parole for more than five years.
“Despite the fact that someone may have a felony on their record or a felony conviction that does not take away their ability to weigh in on what is just or what isn’t just,” Duplessis said.
The controversy came to a head Monday, as defense attorneys for a man being tried for second-degree murder objected to the jury exclusion.
Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams said he was not aware the question was included in the jury summons.
“I was not aware of what was being sent out,” Williams said. “Now that I’ve been made aware of it, we are hopeful that can be corrected quickly and we can get back to work at Tulane and Broad faster than one month or a month and a half’s time.”
Orleans Public Defenders in a statement said, “We are troubled by the ongoing deficiencies in the current jury system. New Orleans juries remain woefully unrepresentative of our entire community and far from equitable.”
“What the court did Monday was recognize an oversight,” Norris Henderson, VOTE founder and executive director said. “It's not about who's right, but what's right, and they need to get these juries right so people can get truly fair trials for once in the state of Louisiana.”
The halt in trials now raises questions about jury convictions obtained since the new law was adopted in mid-2021.
That includes last week’s trial of Donald Reaux, the man convicted of murdering New Orleans rapper “Young Greatness” who was born Theodore Jones.
Williams personally prosecuted the case.
“I’m hopeful that conviction and every other conviction we’ve gotten since March will stand,” Williams said.
For now, Orleans Civil Court, which uses the same jury summons system as the parish criminal court does not plan to pause its jury trials.
A court spokesman said the judges declined to say if their jury questionnaire would be changed.