In 2018, various New Orleans groups such as Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) and my placement site; the Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), moved for Proposition 2 to be put on the Louisiana State Ballot. For context, the 6th amendment of the US Constitution guarantees due process in criminal convictions and requires a unanimous jury vote in order for defendants to be convicted of felony charges. However, this right has been disregarded for years in the state of Louisiana. For decades it has been possible to be convicted by a 10-2 jury vote. However, this oppressive system is just now beginning to change. This proposition was voted on last year and mandates that, effective January 2020, courts cannot convict someone of a felony without a unanimous jury.
When I first came to New Orleans in August 2019 I saw several signs advocating for Prop 2 and celebrating its victory even though it had been nearly a year since it was voted on. There was an overwhelming sense of excitement and relief as it was evident to many New Orleans that justice had finally been achieved. However, when I first began working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, it was evident to me that there was still a lot more work to be done. The estimated number of currently incarcerated persons that were convicted by a non-unanimous jury ranges in the thousands. Proposition 2 got rid of any future possibilities of unjust non-unanimous jury convictions, but it did not give any help to those who are currently imprisoned because of this system.
Various New Orleans attorneys dedicated to restoring justice to this state, have been trying for nearly 20 years to bring this issue before the United States Supreme Court. The purpose is to begin the process for providing relief to person already incarcerated for non-unanimous jury convictions. On October 7th, 2019; in the form of Ramos V. Louisiana, we finally got our chance. Lawyers and staff from the Promise of Justice initiative spent months working diligently preparing for the argument in front of the supreme court.
"...having the opportunity to see justice restored through hardworking individuals that labor tirelessly to break the cycle of oppression found in our criminal justice system, gives me an immense sense of hope and drive to continue this work."
Michael Winters (NOLA 2019-20)
Now that the argument is finished, the Supreme Court Justices have until June of 2020 to make a decision on the case. A positive verdict would mean possible retrials for 40 persons with non-unanimous convictions currently in the process of appealing their case. These 40 cases may seem insignificant when compared to the thousands currently incarcerated on 10-2 convictions, but this number signifies numerous additional chances to restore justice to people.
As a Jesuit Volunteer working with PJI, I have an amazing opportunity and privilege to be able to witness this important work firsthand. I flew to DC with the rest of the PJI team to witness this court case, and the entire time that I was there, I felt an overwhelming sense of being a part of something that is so much bigger than myself. As part of my placement, I interact with many individuals that have been failed by the system. Seeing the constant struggles that they are forced to face secondhand is often quite difficult, but having the opportunity to see justice restored through hardworking individuals that labor tirelessly to break the cycle of oppression found in our criminal justice system, gives me an immense sense of hope and drive to continue this work.
Michael Winters was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois which resulted in him becoming a die-hard Cubs fan and a connoisseur of classic Chicago foods like deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches. Michael was raised Irish-Catholic, a background from which his love for community and desire for social justice has stemmed. These interests led him to Saint Louis University where he studied Economics and Marketing as well as Urban Poverty Studies. Michael's college experiences greatly shaped his outlook on the world and eventually attracted him to JVC. He will be working with the Promise for Justice Initiative in New Orleans.