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After 23 tries, jailhouse lawyer finds historic justice by Frank X. Neuner

I serve as the chair of the board of directors of the Innocence Project New Orleans.

On Jan. 11, 2011, IPNO freed Calvin Duncan, and he came home after more than 28 years in prison. For most of his 28 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Calvin was an inmate counsel substitute (jailhouse lawyer). He only had a 10th-grade education but he taught himself the law and litigated many fellow prisoners’ cases to success.

A recurring issue Calvin saw as a jailhouse lawyer was the nonunanimous jury verdict; men doing life without parole sentences with a 10-2 or 11-1 verdict. He saw the fundamental unfairness of nonunanimous verdicts and he began to regularly challenge them.

He did not stop after he won his freedom. He continued to challenge such verdicts by starting the Light of Justice Project at the Promise of Justice Initiative. When constitutional Amendment 2 passed in November 2018, ending nonunanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana beginning Jan. 1, 2019, Calvin did not stop. He persisted to fight for all the individuals charged and convicted before Jan. 1, 2019. He continued to identify cases to bring to the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of nonunanimous jury verdicts.

He succeeded with Ramos vs. Louisiana, and on April 20, the U.S. Supreme Court held that our Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial means a right to a unanimous jury verdict. Ramos was the 23rd cert petition Calvin coordinated to bring before the Supreme Court. After 23 tries, he made history.

Last May, Calvin graduated from Tulane University, and this fall he will attend the Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon, the other state with a history of nonunanimous jury verdicts. I feel so privileged to know Calvin and deeply admire his perseverance and dedication to fight for justice.


board chair, IPNO