Juror No. 12 Wants Her Voice Heard
JonRe Taylor was the lone Black juror and the lone vote of dissent.
The other 11 Louisianans on the panel convicted teenager Thedrick Edwards in 2009 on charges of aggravated rape, armed robbery and aggravated kidnapping stemming from a 2006 crime spree. Edwards was among a group of young Black men who were initially indicted, while the victims were white college students.
More than a decade later, Taylor, who served as Juror No. 12 in a state that allowed nonunanimous jury verdicts, has not given up on the idea that her voice matters.
The former juror has teamed up with a University of Virginia School of Law professor, who handed her a megaphone recently through what may be a first-of-its kind amicus brief to a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, Edwards v. Vannoy.
“I have hopes that it will make a difference,” Taylor said.
Amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs contain additional information for the court to consider before ruling. Professor Thomas Frampton wrote the novel brief from the perspective of a single juror — rather than the usual advocacy group or legal authority.
Frampton, who had already been considering filing an amicus, and Taylor “started talking and initially it was just sort of background conversations while I was trying to learn as much as I could about the case,” he said. “It was fascinating to me to see how well Ms. Taylor remembered nuances of the trial.”
Taylor said in a recent interview with UVA Law that she believes Edwards, a high school honor roll student when the spree occurred, fell in with a bad crowd and, based on evidence presented, likely served as a lookout rather than an aggressor.
For her, the facts didn’t line up, which led to her reasonable doubt. She asked her fellow jurors, “Are you not paying attention to the different timelines versus what they say occurred?”
Taylor was in her mid-20s at the time of the trial, and the juror closest to Edwards’ age, in addition to being of the same race. The other jurors were much older, and they identified as white in court records.
“I don’t feel like my voice mattered at all,” she said.
Edwards would not have been convicted if the trial were held today and had the same jury outcome.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the spring in another case, Ramos v. Louisiana, that nonunanimous verdicts are unconstitutional, prompting Edwards to petition the court. He argues he’s being illegally detained and should either receive a new trial or be set free. (Louisiana voters notably rejected nonunanimous rulings in a statewide referendum prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling.)
While Frampton acknowledges the chances are slim that the court will make Ramos retroactive, overturning countless previous decisions, the case will force the court to reconsider — amid national cries for criminal justice reform — the fairness of past decisions in which juries have been split and racially stacked. Was justice served in Edwards’ and other cases?
When the court does deliberate, there’s a good chance that Frampton and Taylor’s amicus will receive close attention. The court cited Frampton’s 2018 article “The Jim Crow Jury” twice in deciding Ramos. Published in the Vanderbilt Law Review, the paper found that “Black and white jurors regularly came to starkly different conclusions about guilt and innocence,” Frampton said.
But Taylor’s story and her reasoning as a juror alone are also compelling.
A recent college graduate at the time of the trial who now holds a master’s degree in business administration, Taylor didn’t feel comfortable convicting Edwards based on the evidence presented. Five other teens were originally indicted in the 2006 criminal activity — some of whom had been found with guns and some of the spoils of the robbery, unlike Edwards. Also, the women who were sexually assaulted had expressed uncertainty about the identity of their attacker; Edwards nevertheless was convicted on one count of rape. No DNA or other forensics ever linked him to any of the crimes. Furthermore, he reportedly had been chained to a wall and interrogated at great length before his confession was taped.
Taylor wants the world to know her vote was not uninformed, nor unsympathetic to the victims. She has even been willing to restate what she revealed during the voir dire disclosure process in the original court record: She, too, has been a victim of rape. Convicting not just “a” person, but the right person, was important to her.
“If people can’t be completely sure, how can you give a person life or death?” she asked.
Taylor said she had considered applying to law school before her jury service left her feeling dismissed by her peers.
“At the time, I did have ambitions of becoming a lawyer, going to law school, having some kind of legal practice,” she said. “But to have someone’s life in the balance like that — it just left a sour taste in my mouth.”
In the amicus, Frampton says the fact that Louisiana was an outlier in terms of how it applied its rules bolsters Edward’s case and reinforces Taylor’s grievance.
“In any other jurisdiction (save Oregon), the extent to which Ms. Taylor’s fellow jurors judged Edwards based on his relationship with his friends, rather than based on solid proof of individualized wrongdoing, would have been further debated and scrutinized,” the amicus reads. “But because this trial took place in Louisiana, the other jurors — six older white men and five older white women — were free to disregard Ms. Taylor’s views and return a verdict without her.”
The amicus details other ways that jurors of color have been disregarded historically.
The court is expected to hear arguments in Edwards’ petition in December.
Frampton’s research draws inspiration from his experiences as a public defender in Louisiana. Earlier this fall, he won a man in that state his freedom from prison, while students taking his first-year Criminal Law course looked on.
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