Alston & Bird partnered with The Promise of Justice Initiative to win a significant pro bono case concerning felony convictions by non-unanimous juries that involves issues now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. Vannoy.
The case involved Louisiana prisoner Trent Wells, who was convicted at age 19 of forcible rape and burglary by a non-unanimous jury and spent more than 36 years in prison based on an unconstitutional Jim Crow law.
At the time of Wells’ conviction, Louisiana permitted a conviction to stand even if only 10 of the 12 jurors voted to convict. Wells’ original trial had several irregularities. There were no witnesses, DNA, or other physical evidence tying Wells to the crime other than three latent fingerprints, and there were significant issues with that evidence, including conflicting testimony as to where the fingerprints were even found. The entire trial lasted half a day, and the jury deliberated for only 26 minutes. However, the most glaring irregularity was that two jurors voted to completely acquit Wells on both counts. Wells was sentenced to 50 years in prison with no chance of parole or early release. Wells has always maintained his innocence.
Last year in Ramos v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held in a 6–3 decision that a non-unanimous jury conviction violates both the Sixth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. In his concurring opinion in Ramos, Justice Kavanaugh recognized that Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law was a holdover from the Jim Crow era and enacted for the purpose of silencing Black jurors and ensuring convictions of Black defendants. The Ramos decision, however, was limited to current defendants and did not take into account whether this rule requiring unanimity should apply to individuals who were already convicted by non-unanimous juries and in prison, such as Wells. The issue of retroactivity is currently before the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Vannoy.
Using the reasoning from Ramos, Alston & Bird filed an application for Wells’ convictions to be vacated as unconstitutional. On February 26, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court agreed and vacated Wells’ convictions. Wells was given a low bail and is out of prison for the first time in more than 36 years.
Representing Wells were Alston & Bird partner Daniella Main, senior associate Nathan Lee, and associate Laura Hunt of the firm’s Litigation Practice.
The case is Trent Wells v. Edward “Dusty” Bickham, Warden B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.