Jailhouse Lawyer’s Pristine Legal Analysis

Lest we attorneys think our legal education is an absolute necessity to perform proper legal analysis, Calvin Duncan, a man with a 10th Grade education, did so so for 23 years while a prisoner in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.  That was his assigned job and the state paid him $.20 per hour to do it during his incarceration.  Duncan helped his fellow prisoners with their cases in this way.

He became good at it and was able to procure the release of several of his fellow inmates.  He could spot legal issues, new how to frame the argument and was relentless in his pursuit of justice.  Eventually, seasoned lawyers sought his advice.

Although a very tough legal argument, Duncan repeatedly brought to the U.S. Supreme Court’s attention that failure to have a unanimous verdict in a criminal conviction was a violation of an accused’s Constitutional rights.  After decades of raising the issue, the U.S.  Supreme Court has agreed to hear his argument.  The issue presented is:  “Whether the Fourteenth Amendment fully incorporates the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict?”  If he wins the argument, it could save hundreds of Louisiana prisoners from life sentences.  In 2018, Louisiana citizens amended the state Constitution to require unanimity for criminal convictions occurring after 2018.  Says G. Ben Cohen, the attorney appointed to represent the petitioner:  “The lessons that Calvin taught me were not just about the law.” “They were about not giving up.” Liptak, Adam, New York Times, Sidebar, Aug. 5, 2019.

Interestingly, Mr. Duncan was convicted by a unanimous jury, so he could never benefit from winning his legal argument.  Although sentenced to life, the Innocence Project New Orleans procured his release in 2011 as part of a deal where Mr. Duncan pled guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a sentence of time served.  He has always maintained his innocence. Upon release, he immediately went to the Tulane Campas stating that he wanted to go to school at that university.  Last year, he graduated.