The Civil Rights Significance of Duncan v. Louisiana and the Right to a Jury Trial

The first time Gary Duncan ever flew on a plane—or left his home state of Louisiana—was to travel to the U.S. Supreme Court as the appellant in Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968), the landmark case that applied the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial to the states. Duncan, a Black man from rural Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, had been arrested for touching a white boy’s elbow outside a recently desegregated school. The Louisiana courts denied his demand for a jury trial; under the Louisiana Constitution, jury trials were only granted in cases where the defendant faced capital punishment or imprisonment by hard labor.

Earlier this month, Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute hosted a screening of A Crime on the Bayou, a documentary following Duncan’s case and its significance within the broader civil rights movement. Pamela Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford, delivered opening remarks on the case’s legal context and Gary Duncan, the appellant, and Lolis Eric Elie, an award-winning writer and son of New Orleans civil rights lawyer Lolis Edward Elie, joined for a virtual Q&A following the film. The Stanford Center for Racial Justice co-sponsored the event alongside African and African American Studies, the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, the Stanford Department of Art & Art History, and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

Before the screening, Karlan explained that Duncan’s case was one in a series in which the Supreme Court incorporated various liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights—such as freedom of speech and protection against unlawful searches and seizures—against the states under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Warren Court of the 1960s was also actively grappling with the racial justice concerns at the center of the civil rights movement.

In the film, Duncan recalls how his mother used to caution that trouble was “easy to get into but hard to get out of” for young Black men in Louisiana. She was right. In 1966, just one month into federally enforced school integration in Plaquemines Parish, Duncan tried to de-escalate an interaction between two white boys and some of Duncan’s younger Black relatives outside of a newly integrated school.

Duncan gently laid his hand on a white boy’s elbow. That night, the police arrested Duncan on a simple battery charge. He had no right to a jury trial since the charge carried a maximum prison sentence of two years.

Duncan was thrust into a legal system whose strings were being pulled by white supremacist millionaire and former District Attorney Leander Perez. Perez had fought against desegregation “like nobody had fought before,” Duncan’s attorney Richard Sobol said, and had built a makeshift prison on an alligator-infested island to jail “outside agitators” involved in the civil rights movement. But Duncan, refusing to be intimidated, pleaded not guilty. He could have spared himself extensive jail time by pleading guilty, Elie said, “but he chose not to. I don’t think there’s one in a hundred people who would make that choice. The guy is of steel about his rights.”

And so began a lengthy court battle that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ultimately held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of trial by jury in criminal cases was “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” and that the right must apply in state as well as federal court. On remand, the court dropped the case, finding that the crime against Duncan was only being prosecuted so aggressively for purposes of harassment and to chill the Black community’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

Karlan stressed that Duncan’s legal victory should not be viewed in isolation. The issues of racial justice and fundamental fairness presented in the case are part of an important historical era in U.S. legal history, but are also, unfortunately, “timeless in American society.” Importantly, Louisiana did not require a unanimous jury verdict until Ramos v. Louisiana was decided in 2020, nor did the state require the jury to represent a fair cross-section of the community until Taylor v. Louisiana was decided in 1975. During the Q&A, Duncan (pictured at right, bottom) revealed that if his case hadn’t been dismissed by the District Court and instead had gone in front of a likely all-white Plaquemines Parish jury, he believes he would have lost. Pleading innocent “would have been a waste of time,” he said.

Reflecting on his life and the broader Plaquemines Parish community since the verdict, Duncan said he believes conditions have improved some—but not enough—stressing the need for more Black representation in politics and more job opportunities for Black Americans. He ended the event with a plea to the lawyers in the room: “Step up to the plate. We still have a mountain to climb.”

Remeny White

A Crime on the Bayou is available to stream via Hulu (with a Starz add-on) or to rent through Amazon Prime.