Roderick Vidau turned down a plea deal in 2005 because he never expected a jury of 12 of his peers would convict him of committing armed robbery.
He was right: Only 10 jurors found him guilty, but in Louisiana that was enough to send him to prison for 35 years. He allegedly stole $15.
“I was devastated,” Vidau, now 43, told Bloomberg Law in an interview from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, La.
Vidau is one of roughly 1,500 people in Louisiana who are incarcerated after guilty verdicts by nonunanimous juries, according to The Promise of Justice Initiative, a Louisiana nonprofit that has been tracking nonunanimous jury incarcerations in that state. The issue has become racially charged, as a disproportionate number of people convicted by nonunanimous juries are Black.
Until recently, just two states—Louisiana and Oregon—had laws allowing people to be convicted by 10-2 or 11-1 juries.
The Supreme Court ruled against the practice in Ramos v. Louisiana in April, holding that it is unconstitutional for people to be convicted by a nonunanimous jury. However, the decision didn’t address whether that finding was retroactive.
That leaves Vidau and others like him in a legal limbo with a ticking clock. Louisiana law gives them one year from the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos to file paperwork to vacate their convictions, which may result in new trials because prosecutors would have the option to bring each case again.
“It’s important to give these people the trial they would have gotten in 48 other states across the country,” said Sally Dahlstrom, Haynes and Boone associate and counsel for Vidau.
The Louisiana Department of Justice opposes reversing those convictions because it says the state relied on Supreme Court precedent that allowed for the use of nonunanimous juries for nearly 50 years. Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill said Edwards v. Louisiana “is not about whether unanimity is a good policy.”
“Thousands of long-final convictions would be unsettled by retroactive application of the Ramos Rule, which applied the unanimity requirement to the states for the first time,” Murrill said. “It should not be applied retroactively, upending long-final convictions involving rape, murder, child molestation, and other violent crimes.”
The justices appeared divided during oral arguments, with questions from Justices Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer suggesting that all three may favor retroactivity. However, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett revealed little about their leanings on the issue.
And Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh are likely votes against retroactivity. Kavanaugh voted with the majority in Ramos, but said in a concurrence that he didn’t think the decision should apply retroactively.
A decision by the court is expected before the end of June.
Some 80% of people who remain in Louisiana prisons due to nonunanimous juries are Black—a higher ratio than the 67.5% of Louisiana’s overall Black prison population, according to tracking by The Promise of Justice Initiative. Less than 33% of the state’s total population is Black, according to census data.
Thedrick Edwards, the Black man at the center of the Supreme Court case, was convicted in 2007 of armed robbery, kidnapping, and rape and sentenced to life in prison. The lone Black juror voted to acquit on all counts.
Louisiana passed a law allowing for nonunanimous juries in 1898, which was widely considered a Jim Crow attempt to circumvent the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and to dilute the power of Black jurors when Black people were on trial, said Jamila Johnson, a managing attorney for the justice initiative, which is helping represent Vidau and others in his situation.
Louisiana voters ended the practice in 2018, but state officials have not sought a remedy for those convicted by nonunanimous juries who are still serving time and exhausted their direct appeals or for those struggling to find work due to their criminal record.
“We know that non-unanimous juries were created by white supremacists to oppress and imprison Black people—and as we see in the data, that’s exactly what they accomplished,” Johnson said.
The problem with nonunanimous juries is compounded, Johnson says, by the long sentences typically handed down in those cases. The justice initiative found 62% of people with nonunanimous jury verdicts are serving life sentences, compared to 16.3% of Louisiana’s total adult correctional population.
“Behind each of these numbers is a human life,” Johnson said.
Vidau says the hardest part has been the separation from his family, including his three children. It’s also difficult “not being able to function like a man.”
“I am a human,” he said. “I am a man with family, with kids, with plenty of loved ones. I want people to see me as a person.”
Vidau’s sentence is unusually long largely because he took a plea deal and accepted a felony charge as a principle to an armed robbery when he was 17, and thus was considered a habitual offender when he was sentenced for armed robbery in 2005.
In his first case, Vidau said he was arrested after riding in a car with friends who had allegedly robbed a store. He maintains his innocence and said he had no idea the mistake he was making at the time by agreeing to become a felon instead of fighting the charge.
“A lot of Americans don’t realize the way the system works,” he said. “The way the legal system works here is something I can’t truly explain, because it’s unexplainable.”
Vidau said he is hopeful he will get to see his three children again soon.
In the meantime, he has focused on his own education and become a tutor and mentor to other people incarcerated in the same facility.
“I don’t drown in rage, because I know rage won’t solve anything,” he said. “I don’t have any rage in me.”
The case is Edwards v. Vannoy, U.S., No. 19-5807, Docket 10/20/20