All or Nothing
Jamila Johnson ’07 has spent much of her career spearheading criminal justice reform efforts, the latest of which is nothing short of historic.
In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Jim Crow-era law in Louisiana that allowed convictions of individuals accused of serious crimes without unanimous jury verdicts. The Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI), where Johnson serves as managing attorney, represented petitioner Evangelisto Ramos in the landmark case and secured the decision that could pave the way to new trials for thousands of inmates.
“It's always easier to do things moving forward than it is to go back and address past wrongs,” Johnson says. “My role as the managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project is to work on figuring out how a community heals after more than 120 years of a Jim Crow law in the state constitution.”
Johnson grew up in Seattle and did not initially intend to be a lawyer. Her first personal experience with the criminal justice system came in high school when a boyfriend was wrongfully convicted of a crime in King County and incarcerated. He was later exonerated thanks to efforts by Innocence Project Northwest (now the Washington Innocence Project), but the experience made a profound impression on Johnson, who decided to focus her work on fighting injustice at all levels.
Her experience doing so is substantial: Since graduating from UW Law in 2007, Johnson has worked in private practice as a shareholder with Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt; at the Southern Poverty Law Center; and has been involved with the ACLU of Washington, the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund and the Seattle Women’s Commission, among others. She served on the steering committee that achieved an amendment to Louisiana’s constitution to end non-unanimous jury verdicts for crimes committed after January 1, 2019.
At PJI, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that works to create positive change for people in the criminal justice system, she leads the Jim Crow Juries Project, which supported the landmark case and advocates for people convicted with non-unanimous jury verdicts. This work would help bring about a monumental achievement as part of an already distinguished career.
The case before the court, Ramos v. Louisiana, centered around Evangelisto Ramos. He was convicted by a 10-2 jury verdict of second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. At the time, Louisiana was one of only two states that did not require unanimous jury verdicts in cases involving serious crimes. Louisiana also has the highest incarceration rate of any U.S. state.
The law, Johnson explains, dates back to the post-Civil War era, when the state changed its constitution to nullify votes of black jurors by providing for non-unanimous jury verdicts. In 1972, two cases brought the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the law in a decidedly messy opinion.
“You had four justices who said that the Sixth Amendment definitively requires a unanimous jury; you had four justices that said, ‘We're not sure it requires a unanimous jury,’” Johnson says. “Then you had one justice who said that the Sixth Amendment does require a unanimous jury, but that it doesn’t apply to state trials.”
The Ramos case was the 24th petition filed to the Supreme Court on the issue of non-unanimous jury verdicts by PJI’s attorneys since 2002. The decision put into law a requirement for unanimous juries in all cases involving series crimes in the state of Louisiana.
My role as the managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project is to work on figuring out how a community heals after more than 120 years of a Jim Crow law in the state constitution.
While achieving a major step forward, PJI is now working to establish retroactivity of the Supreme Court’s decision to all convictions that were the result of non-unanimous jury verdicts — efforts that could potentially affect thousands of incarcerated individuals.
“That's where we are focusing our efforts and doing our outreach into the prisons, where we are working to connect lawyers to take cases as part of a mass representation project,” Johnson says.
Louisiana may be a far cry from the Pacific Northwest, but Johnson still leverages the skills and practices she honed at UW Law — especially those she learned during her time in the Innocence Project Clinic.
“Now I am in a world where I am going to have to facilitate hundreds and hundreds of post-conviction relief applications being filed for people in prisons across the state of Louisiana,” Johnson says. “The first post-conviction relief application I wrote was in the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Washington.”
As for life in Louisiana, Johnson says it is somewhere she never expected to be even after law school. But by following her passion and seizing the right opportunities, she put herself in position to make a difference in the lives of thousands.
“I have learned so much about the world and about people, life, struggle and resilience living here,” she says. “However, I still try to only file cases when it’s cloudy and raining: That’s my weather.”