The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday, April 20, 2020, that state court juries must be unanimous to convict defendants in criminal trials. The decision overturned a Louisiana second-degree murder conviction of Evangelisto Ramos. The 10-2 verdict resulted in a life sentence when a jury found him guilty.
The Court pointed out that 48 states and, more importantly, federal courts already required unanimous jury verdicts in all criminal cases. Only Lousiana and Oregon did not require unanimous jury verdicts.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial applies to the States via the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Neil Gorsuch writing for the majority opined that “if the jury trial right requires a unanimous verdict in federal court, it requires no less in state court.”
The majority opinion pointed out that Louisiana and Oregon’s tolerance of nonunanimous verdicts originated with efforts to reduce the effect of minority voices on juries. A committee chairman said that the goal of the 1898 Constitutional Convention, where nonunanimous criminal jury verdicts were first championed, was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority decision maintained that the adoption by Oregon of nonunanimous jury verdicts “can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan” and attempts to mitigate ‘the influence of racial, ethnic and religious minorities on Oregon juries.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturned its 1972 ruling in Apodaca v. Oregon. Monday’s 6-3 majority opinion featured a mix of conservative and liberal justices. Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Justices Brett Kavanaugh joined Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion.
Justice Samuel Alito, dissenting, was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Alito cautioned that the overturning of longstanding established precedent “marks an important turn” if the U.S. Supreme Court’s approach is not limited to this particular case.
Justice Alito complained that “Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority casts aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered,” He pointed out that Oregan and Lousiana had prosecuted thousands of criminal defendant’s without requiring unanimous verdicts because they relied on the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision.
Justice Alito argued that by overturning that ruling, it “imposes a potentially crushing burden on the courts and criminal justice systems of those States.” Justice Alito claimed that the majority “brushes aside these consequences and even suggests that the States should have known better than to count on our decision.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, while joining in the majority’s decision, also wrote a concurring opinion.
Recently, nevertheless, a 2018 Louisana ballot initiative was passed by voters, which amended the state’s constitution and now requires unanimous verdicts in all criminal cases.