By Jacqueline Zimmer
Jace Washington was sentenced to 25 years by a non-unanimous jury for a crime he did not commit. He should be freed immediately or be given another trial to prove his innocence.
At the time of writing, the man who prosecuted Jace Washington, former Tammany Parish DA, Walter Reed is serving a four-year sentence for a crime of dishonesty. Two other men critical to this case, Saint Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain and Coroner Peter Galvan, are mired in scandal. Warren Montgomery, Reed’s successor, has promised to “clean up corruption” in the criminal justice system of Saint Tammany Parish.
I implore Warren Montgomery, 22nd Judicial District Attorney, to review the wealth of evidence which proves that Jace Washington is innocent. Jace has now spent 11 years behind bars for a crime that he did not commit.
I came across Jace Washington’s story on the Friends of Justice blog in the spring of 2017 while conducting research for my dissertation on mass incarceration in Louisiana (you can find the relevant fact issues here). For the past eighteen months, I have spent countless hours perusing stacks of court documents from Jace’s case, cold calling people who were in some way related to Jace’s case, and drafting summaries and presentations showcasing the stack of evidence in Jace’s favor.
The amount of time that I’ve spent researching this case does not hold a candle to the countless hours that Jace and his mother Barbara have devoted to advocating for justice in this matter. The appalling discoveries that I have made throughout my research corroborate what Barbara and Jace knew a decade before I came along. The level of misconduct involved in the mishandling of Jace’s case is egregious and abhorrent, a graphic illustration of the endemic discrimination by which the Walter Reed administration conducted its work over three merciless decades.
In recent months, I have been working with Ms. Belinda Parker-Brown of Louisiana United International (LUI) to bring the case of Jace Washington before Warren Montgomery, the current District Attorney of St. Tammany Parish. LUI is a grassroots organization that has been instrumental in indicting, prosecuting, and sentencing former 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed for corruption convictions, and under the tireless efforts of Ms. Parker-Brown and her dedicated team of justice crusaders, LUI continues to work towards bringing justice to the thousands of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit during Walter Reed’s thirty-year tenure as St. Tammany Parish DA.
Louisiana’s Continued Use of the Non-Unanimous Jury
In the summer of 2017, musician-celebrity John Legend visited Baton Rouge to attend the legislative session on reforms to reduce the incarceration rate in the state of Louisiana. Specifically, Mr. Legend criticized the continued use of non-unanimous juries in Louisiana’s courtrooms for 120 years. The use of non-unanimous is one of several measures passed by delegates during Louisiana’s all-white constitutional convention in 1898 designed to “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.”
The delegates knew what they were doing when they passed this measure. If the federal Constitution required that African-Americans be allowed to serve on juries, the state constitution could make sure that minority votes could be discounted.
In a review of nearly 1,000 felony trials in the state, the New Orleans Advocate determined that 40% of jury verdicts were not unanimous. They also found that the combination of prosecutorial strikes of African-American jurors and the 10-2 jury rule has sharply diminished the participation of African American jurors.
Non-Unanimous Jury – Jace’s Case
Jace Washington was convicted on the basis of an 11-1 jury vote. If the state of Louisiana respected the 6th amendment (as do all other states with the exception of Oregon), Jace Washington would not be spending the prime years of his life behind bars.
In Jace’s case, the single abstaining vote was cast by a white woman. Considering the difficulty in being a minority of one on a panel of fellow jurors, the non-unanimous vote suggests that she had grave reservations about the evidence presented in Jace’s trial. To cast the single dissenting vote is not something anyone would do unless conscience demanded it.
Jace Washington was sentenced to 25 years for a crime he did not commit. He should be freed immediately or be given another trial to prove his innocence.
The Fight for Jace Washington’s Freedom
Warren Montgomery, 22nd Judicial District Attorney in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, can make good on his promise to “clean up the corruption” of the disgraced former 22nd Judicial DA, Walter Reed. Reed, along with with St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain and Coroner Peter Galvan, were the three most powerful entities in the St. Tammany Parish’s justice system. During Reed’s administration, these three men were notorious for maliciously prosecuting people on concocted, fraudulent information. Although only 12% of people in St. Tammany Parish are African-Americans according to 2016 Census, the vast majority of those who were convicted in the parish during Reed’s tenure were African-American. Together, Reed, Strain, and Galvan destroyed families, terrified the African-American community of St. Tammany Parish, and subjected hundreds of men and women to needless suffering in the name of upholding Reed’s 98% conviction rate.
Warren Montgomery has told LUI that his office lacks the money to vet the cases to bring these men back before the courtroom. However, Ms. Parker-Brown told Mr. Montgomery that if money is the issue, LUI and its team of volunteers stand ready to carry out the tedious and difficult work of vetting the 8,000 cases that date back to the Reed administration. Once the cases have been vetted, the cases of individuals deemed to have been unjustly convicted can be brought before Mr. Montgomery for reconsideration.
LUI’s team operates pro-bono and has, to date, vetted 1700 of the 8000 cases.
I write on behalf of all of the people who have advocated for Jace’s freedom over the past 11 years. Our prayer is that Mr. Montgomery will find it in his heart to follow through on his campaign promise, voiced on the evening of his election, to “change this whole corrupt system” in Saint Tammany Parish. Our prayer is that Mr. Montgomery will take action on behalf of Jace Washington.
Mr. Washington’s case has been thoroughly vetted by selfless volunteers and LUI is prepared to present his case to Warren Montgomery. The only just action is to grant Jace compassionate release, effective immediately.