Exposé of discriminatory Louisiana jury system wins Baton Rouge Advocate a Pulitzer for local reporting

April 15, 2019

Investigative reporting by The Advocate of Baton Rouge on how Louisiana‘s courts allow consensus rather than unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases — resulting in discriminatory convictions — won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

Louisiana is one of only two states (Oregon is the other) that allows a 10-person majority to render a verdict. The Advocate’s meticulous statistical analysis found that the unusual law, dating back to the Jim Crow days of 1898, disproportionately impacts black defendants. They were 10 percentage points more likely than whites to be convicted on 10-2 votes. Jury selection practices also often were used to exclude blacks.

Getting results is almost always part of the Pulitzer board’s consideration. The Advocate delivered. Its series of stories, “Tilting the Scales” and supporting editorials began April 1, 2018. In November, Louisiana voters approved by a 64 percent margin a constitutional ballot measure to abolish the practice.

The Advocate was the only small city paper to win a 2019 Pulitzer, its first. The entry beat out finalists from two metros: The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

You could say The Advocate punches above its weight, but the story is slightly more complex. From its Baton Rouge base, The Advocate has sister papers in New Orleans and Lafayette, effectively giving statewide coverage. Total news staff for the three is roughly 110.

The New Orleans edition, now six years old, was rolled out as a competitor after the Times-Picayune cut back to three days a week of home-delivered print editions in favor of a digital orientation.

Editor Peter Kovacs, publisher Dan Shea and a number of reporters and editors worked previously for the Times-Picayune. John Georges, owner of all three papers, is wealthy and well-connected and thus equipped to absorb start-up costs in New Orleans and Lafayette.

Kovacs, an editor with 35 years experience, told me Monday that the racial element of non-unanimous verdicts had long been noticed.

“Like a lot of things, it was all around you, but we needed to figure out why. That had never been done.”

The reporting took a year and required visits to nearly every one of Louisiana’s 64 parish courthouses. Records were not kept consistently, Kovacs said, and in some instances only the person convicted knew the verdict had not been unanimous.

The lead in the first story offered a vivid example of the bias. In a drug deal, an African American defendant shot and killed another man. He claimed self-defense. The prosecution pushed for second-degree murder. The conviction came on a 10-2 vote with the only two black jurors — both quoted in the story — the dissenting votes.

In doing data analysis on at 3,000 cases over six years and finding records of the votes in 900, The Advocate saw versions of that scenario repeated over and over. Blacks were overrepresented among defendants and underrepresented in the jury mix. Prosecutors used peremptory challenges disproportionately to strike blacks from the jury pool.

Not coincidentally, blacks make up about a third of Louisiana’s population but two-thirds of its prisoners.

The legislature took up the issue when it met. After considerable debate, two-thirds of both houses approved a bill to put a measure to repeal the law on the November ballot.

Governor John Bel Edwards, noting the law’s racist origins, commented, “We are an outlier when we shouldn’t be.

The Advocate supported reform in a series of editorials, which scored as a Pulitzer finalist in that category this year as well. The New York Times also editorialized, deploring the practice.

The Advocate’s series won a George F. Polk award earlier this year.