High Court Says Jury Convictions Must Be Unanimous

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Authority of Law Statue, in front of Supreme Court building, Washington. Photo by Matt Wade via Flickr

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that juries in criminal trials must be unanimous to convict a defendant, the Associated Press reports.

The decision settled a quirk of constitutional law that had allowed divided jury votes to result in convictions in Louisiana and Oregon.

Monday’s ruling overturned the conviction of Evangelisto Ramos. He is serving a life sentence in Louisiana for killing a woman after a jury voted 10-2 to convict him in 2016. Oregon is the only other state that allows non-unanimous convictions for some crimes.

Louisiana voters changed the law for crimes committed beginning in 2019, requiring unanimous verdicts.

Now the same rules apply in all 50 states and in the federal courts: Juries must vote unanimously for a conviction.

The outcome will affect defendants who are still appealing their convictions. For defendants whose cases are final, it will take another round of lawsuits to determine whether the high court ruling applies to them.

Monday’s opinion was issued by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who reviewed the racist origins of non-unanimous jury rules, quoting a Louisiana constitutional convention statement that 10-to-2 verdicts were to be permitted in order “to ensure that African-American juror service would be meaningless.”

Courts in both states “have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules,” Gorsuch said.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws are fully—and rightly—relegated to the dustbin of history.”

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan, cited a 1972 high court decision in a case called Apodaca that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment permits non-unanimous verdicts in state criminal trials.

Alito said, “In all the years since then, no Justice has even hinted that Apodaca should be reconsidered. Understandably thinking that Apodaca was good law, the state courts in Louisiana and Oregon have tried thousands of cases under rules that permit such verdicts. But today, the Court does away with Apodaca and, in so doing, imposes a potentially crushing burden on the courts and criminal justice systems of those
States.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report

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