As announced Monday, juries for state criminal trials must vote unanimously to convict a defendant.
The ruling, which reinforces the standard in most states, settles a constitutional loophole that allowed judges to convict defendants in Louisiana and Oregon without a unanimous vote.
Louisiana in 2018 voted to abandon the loophole for crimes committed in 2019 or later, while Oregon continued to allow convictions if no more than 2 members of the jury disagreed with the majority.
“Wherever we might look to determine what the term ‘trial by an impartial jury trial’ meant at the time of the Sixth Amendment’s adoption…the answer is unmistakable,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. “A jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict.”
As noted by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the outlier rule made it easier to convict minorities. “Non-unanimous juries can silence the voices and negate the votes of black jurors, especially in cases with black defendants or black victims, and only one or two black jurors.”
The Supreme Court’s decision overturned the conviction of Evangelisto Ramos, a Louisiana resident (see image above) who earned a life sentence in 2016 for murder charges. The jury voted 10-2 to convict.
“We have been bringing challenges to Louisiana’s outlier split jury rule to the US Supreme Court since 2004,” says Ben Cohen, an attorney working for Mr. Ramos. “We are heartened that the Court has held…that the promise of the Sixth Amendment fully applies in Louisiana, rejecting any concept of second-class justice.”
In his dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito accused the majority of “lowering the bar for overruling our precedents.” Alito was joined in his opinion by Justices John Roberts and Elena Kagan.
Alito argued that Louisiana and Oregon’s reliance on the outlier law was reason enough to keep it in place and worried the ruling could raise questions about thousands of convictions, creating a “potentially crushing burden on the courts and criminal justice systems of those states.”