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SCOTUS Decision Is A Blow To Effort To Re-try Felons Convicted By Non-unanimous Jury Verdicts

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WWNO

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that its 2020 ban on non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases won’t be applied retroactively. That means that Louisiana won’t be required to retry the roughly 1,000 to 1,600 incarcerated people convicted by divided juries.

Many of those prisoners have exhausted their appeals.

The justices’ ruling came in the case of Ewards v. Vannoy. Thedrick Edwards, who is a Black man, was convicted in 2007 of one count of rape, five counts of armed robbery and two counts of kidnapping by a jury that was split 10-2 on four of the robbery charges and 11-1 on the other charges. Evidence in the case included Edwards’ confession to police. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Non-unanimous juries have been referred to as Jim Crow juries because of the 1880 Louisiana law that made them permissible. Critics say they were designed to ensure that Black jurors votes didn’t count in cases against Black defendants.

The one Black juror in the Edwards case voted to acquit the defendant.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the court, which was that rulings that set a new procedure are not traditionally applied retroactively.

“This Court has announced many important new rules of criminal procedure. But the Court has not applied any of those new rules retroactively on federal collateral review,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In light of the Court’s well-settled retroactivity doctrine, we conclude that the Ramos jury-unanimity rule … does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.”

Ramos v. Louisiana is the case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s ruling to ban non-unanimous jury verdicts. Prior to that ruling, divided juries were also allowed in Oregon and Puerto Rico.

Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, which advocates to restore the rights of people impacted by the criminal justice system, stressed that 64 percent of Louisianans voted to abolish non-unanimous jury convictions in 2018. Reilly believes those citizens would like to see the cases that resulted in divided jury verdicts retried.

“The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is willing to let innocent people die in prison for the fear that one guilty person might get a new trial is troubling,” Reilly said.

But Reilly said, Louisiana courts can still retry these cases.

“[The ruling] doesn’t mean that Louisiana can’t apply [Ramos] retroactively, it only means that they don't have to,” Reilly said.

In February, New Orleans vacated 22 non-unanimous jury convictions.

In March, Louisiana Rep. Randal Gaines, a Democrat from LaPlace, sponsored House Bill 346, which seeks to set up a process to address past non-unanimous jury convictions.

Gaines opted to temporarily defer that bill last Thursday to wait for the Supreme Court to weigh in on Edwards.

Rep. Ted James, who chairs the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, which Gaines is a member of, is pushing to reassign the bill to the House Criminal Justice Committee, which he chairs.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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