LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Some lawmakers across the state are working to reverse a century-old law rooted in the Jim Crow era. A new Senate bill would require unanimous juries in all felony cases. Now, only ten of twelve are required, except in capital murder cases or in cases where there is a jury of six people, which requires unanimity/
But in a legislative debate last year, words of Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier said, enraged at least one legislator at the session last week.
DeRosier acknowledges non-unanimous verdicts had racist beginnings, but told the committee:
"I'm not proud of that, that that's the way it started. But it is what it is."
His comment drew the ire of Representative Ted James who represents East Baton Rouge Parish.
"To admit that it started in slavery and say, 'It is what it is? I hope the people of your parish are listening, and if they aren't I'm going to make sure that they know what you said. I am utterly offended," said James, at a committee hearing April 25.
But DeRosier says his comment was misunderstood...
"I said, 'I'm not proud of that, but it is what it is, meaning yes, it was based in racism 138 years ago,'" he said in a interview this week.
Ironically, two public defenders, who emphatically support unanimous verdicts, say DeRosier didn't deserve to be lambasted.
"I know John DeRosier and most everybody in Calcasieu Parish knows he is no racist," said King Alexander, a supervisor at the Calcasieu Public Defender's Office.
Harry Fontenot is the District Defender for Calcasieu and Cameron.
"I've known John for years, I've been on the other side of the aisle from John. I've never known him to be racist. I don't believe he is. He is not a racist," said Fontenot.
Nearly a week later, James stands by his critique.
"I didn't accuse him of being a racist at the time. He made some racially insensitive remarks. That doesn't make him a racist. That means he should probably spend more time talking about these issues with people that don't look like him,"said James.
"I'm not going to sit quietly when racially insensitive remarks are made," said James.
James says the bill had unanimous support in committee. The unanimous verdict issue is expected to be debated later this week.