Supreme Court Rules Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts in Criminal Trials Unconstitutional
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that defendants in criminal trials can only be convicted by a unanimous jury, striking down a practice that has already been abandoned by all but one state.
Writing for the majority on a divided court, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the Constitution requires agreement among all members of a jury in order to impose a guilty verdict.
At present, only Oregon allows a defendant to be convicted over the dissent of up to two jurors.
However, the case before the court originated in Louisiana which abandoned the practice last year after a century of use. Though Louisiana updated its law, the change does not apply retroactively.
The court’s 6-3 ruling means that Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted on a 10-2 vote of the 2014 murder of Trinece Fedison, will likely get a new trial.
Fedison was murdered in New Orleans in November 2014, and her body was found discarded in a garbage can. Ramos lived on the same block on which Fedison’s body was found and he was convicted largely on DNA evidence.
But during his trial, the defense explained away the DNA evidence, saying Ramos and Fedison had been in a relationship, and that regardless of whether his DNA was found on her body, she was killed by someone else.
In the end, the divided jury found Ramos guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His conviction was upheld by Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his opinion Gorsuch said, had Ramos been tried in 48 other states or in federal court, a mistrial would most certainly have been declared.
His fellow justices filed multiple concurrences and dissents, which other justices joined either in whole or in part.
In his opinion, Gorsuch attempts to explain how Oregon and Louisiana became legal outliers but admits in both cases “it’s hard to say why these laws persist.”
Both laws had their roots in the post-Civil War era, when efforts were made to uphold the previous white status quo. Louisiana first embraced non-unanimous verdicts at a state constitutional convention in 1898.
“Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule permitting non-unanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute ‘the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries,’” Gorsuch wrote.
“On what ground would anyone have us leave Mr. Ramos in prison for the rest of his life?” Gorsuch asked. “Not a single member of this Court is prepared to say Louisiana secured his conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment.
“No one before us suggests that the error was harmless,” he continued. “Louisiana does not claim precedent commands an affirmance. In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others. But where is the justice in that?
“Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed,” Gorsuch concluded.