In October 1966, 19-year-old Gary Duncan, a Black fisherman in Plaquemines Parish, La., saw his nephew and cousin surrounded by a group of White boys outside a newly integrated high school. Duncan approached them to prevent a fight. In the process, he touched a White boy’s arm. Soon, Duncan was facing a charge of cruelty to a juvenile.
Plaquemines Parish at the time was being controlled by Leander Perez, “the cigar-puffing D.A.” who was notorious for his segregationist policies. Duncan turned himself in and the charges were dropped. However, the law came after him with an assault and battery charge. He was subsequently denied a jury trial, sentenced to 60 days in prison, and fined $150.
Richard Sobol, who worked as a civil rights lawyer at the height of Louisiana’s civil rights movement, took up Duncan’s case. Duncan and the White attorney from the North, defying numerous risks to their lives, appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, Duncan’s case was unique as he won a right to a jury trial not previously guaranteed in Louisiana’s state courts.
It is documented that when the case was dragged to the Supreme Court, the justices were forced to ask the question: Was Louisiana obligated to provide a trial by jury in these types of criminal cases?
“In its 1968 7-2 decision on Duncan v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court decided in the landmark case that the Sixth Amendment guarantees trial by jury in criminal cases — and that this is ‘fundamental to the American scheme of justice.’ States are also obligated under the Fourteenth Amendment to provide such trials, the high court found,” a report said.
By standing up for his rights and fighting the system that oppressed him, Duncan did get justice. Indeed, his appeal against the state of Louisiana created the precedent that U.S. states must honor requests for jury trials.
“A Crime on the Bayou”, a new documentary released recently, looked at Duncan’s story. “They wanted to use me as an example for the rest of the Blacks,” Duncan, now 72, says in the documentary as he tearfully recalls what happened to him.
Nancy Buirski is the documentary’s director. Her previous films are The Loving Story and The Rape of Recy Taylor. Buirski said that “A Crime on the Bayou” does not only highlight racism and social injustice but also looks at how the legal system has been used to oppress Black people and other minority groups.
In an interview with KultureHub, she said: “One of the other themes that comes out in the movie that was important to me was the sense that people come together and they work together to try and change things. You see that, particularly The Loving Story. You see it with Recy Taylor, where Rosa Parks comes to her aid, and helps her fight the deal with the court. And you especially see it in Richard Sobol and Gary Duncan, who did remain close friends up until Sobol’s death.”