Saints LB Demario Davis hopes to make big hit on Election Day with criminal justice reform

Go ahead, Demario Davis, enlighten us.

“Louisiana is one of only two states where you can be convicted of a felony without a unanimous jury verdict,” the New Orleans Saints linebacker told USA TODAY Sports. “The reason it’s bad is that Louisiana is (by some measures) leading the nation in wrongful convictions.

"This shows the system is not working.”

The system. That’s why Davis is campaigning for voters to pass Louisiana Amendment 2 on Tuesday, which would scrap the “10-2” system – it takes only 10 of 12 jurors to vote guilty for a felony conviction to be secured – and represent a huge step toward reducing the chances that innocent people are wrongfully convicted.

“In a nation where you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Davis added, “we need to make sure that people are allowed their due process.”

Sure, the Saints have a showdown against the undefeated Rams on Sunday at the Superdome, where Davis will have his hands full in trying to keep up with Todd Gurley and Co.

But two days after the big game comes another big Election Day.

Davis, 29, embodies the increasing activism by many NFL players amid this tense political climate. After a protest launched in 2016 by quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited national debate, players such as Davis, a member of the Players Coalition, have been inspired to fight social injustices by other means – and in some ways with the support of the NFL, which has partnered with players for a $90 million joint social justice initiative.

Earlier this year, Davis and Saints tight end Benjamin Watson threw their weight behind House Bill 265, which was passed to restore voting rights for ex-felons on probation or parole in Louisiana, beginning in March 2019.

Now Davis, the son of an Army veteran, is moved to bring attention to another issue that he believes needs the voices of people with platforms to shed light. Sobering statistics, which show a pattern of racial inequality, underscore exactly why he is such an advocate for this specific cause.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Orleans Parish, where New Orleans is situated, ranked highest from 1989 to 2015 among counties of at least 300,000 residents for its per-capita exoneration rate (9.33). Adjacent Jefferson Parish is fourth (5.03) on the list.

While Louisiana (with a booming prison construction industry and an incarceration rate more than 50% higher than the national average) ranks ninth in the total number of exonerations dating to 1989 (59), no state has a higher average of years lost per case (14.3 years) for those exonerated, according to the registry. Furthermore, nearly half of the 1,900 exonerations cited by the registry nationwide were African-Americans. The registry, a joint project by the University of Michigan Law School, the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at Cal-Irvine and the Michigan State University College of Law, also concluded in 2017 that African-Americans were 12 times more likely than whites to be wrongly convicted for drug offenses.

Also: Experts insist that many wrongful convictions are never overturned. According to a 2016 CourtWatch NOLA report, 57% of trials reviewed contained no physical evidence. And too often, the convictions come without corroborating eyewitnesses.

Statistics, loopholes and the real people that Davis has encountered while exploring the issue – he said he spoke with one man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 13 years, another for 20 years – have simply put, made him care enough.

“We’re trying to be advocates in a lot of different spaces in trying to reduce mass incarceration, which primarily affects black and brown people,” Davis said. “We want to create real solutions.”

He’s hopeful that Amendment 2 will become another measure to change the world, optimistic because he senses there is legitimate bipartisan support.

“Judges, prosecutors, everybody is like, ‘This law needs to change,’ “ Davis said. “There’s a lot of momentum.”

The definitive measures will come next Tuesday.

"There’s a myth out there with some people: ‘My vote doesn’t matter,’ “ Davis said. “Well, your vote does matter. Who’s the D.A.? Who’s the Sheriff? There are issues right in your backyard, where if you don’t vote, you’re silencing your own voice.”

Davis, who grew up in Mississippi, talked about such issues for nearly half-hour during a phone interview. When I visited with him at his locker on Sunday night in Minnesota, it was all football as he was brimming with pride that the Saints defense came up with clutch big plays to win at one of the toughest venues in the league.

Yet in this conversation, football never came up. That was refreshing, yet not surprising for a man who established a foundation this year with his wife, Tamela, dedicated to closing the gap in educational disparities. As important as football is for a player on his third NFL team in seven seasons, he sees a world bigger than the NFL – a world the NFL can do much with its platform to change for the better.

“Hopefully, the NFL can be a leader, so that other corporations can do the same thing,” he said. “That’s something we can all be united about. Make sure the promises of this country extend to all four corners of the flag.”

The man sure can express a message. Even better if it has the intended impact.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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