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Louisiana Non-Unanimous Jury Case Heads To U.S. Supreme Court

PATRICK FELLER VIA FLICKR / CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY/2.0/LEGALCODE
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The United States Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider whether or not non-unanimous juries are constitutional. The decision comes about four months after Louisiana passed a ballot initiative requiring unanimous verdicts in all felony cases.

The Court will take up the case of Evangelisto Ramos, charged with the death of a New Orleans woman in 2014. Ramos was convicted of second-degree murder by 10 of 12 jurors and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Ben Cohen is an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans. He’s representing Mr. Ramos and is asking the Supreme Court to consider whether or not the split jury vote should stand.

“Under the Sixth Amendment, the right to a jury trial in federal court guarantees a unanimous jury. That’s been true since founding," explains Cohen, "and if you go to federal court, you get a unanimous jury.”

You get a unanimous jury in Louisiana courts, too. But that wasn’t the case until this year, after Louisiana voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury decisions in felony cases.

But the amendment is not retroactive, meaning convictions already decided by a non-unanimous jury in Louisiana - those like Mr. Ramos' - still stand.

While Louisiana went on record as saying non-unanimous juries would no longer be allowed, “we still have thousands of people languishing in Louisiana prisons who were convicted by non-unanimous juries and aren’t allowed to get new trials or reconsideration,” says Thomas Aiello, author and historian at Georgia’s Valdosta State University. 

The Supreme Court has considered non-unanimous juries before. Back in 1972, two cases went in front of the court, Apodaca v. Oregon and Johnson v. Louisiana.  At the time, the two states were the only in the U.S. that allowed split jury verdicts. Today, Oregon remains the lone state that does not require unanimous verdicts.

In both cases, the Court agreed non-unanimous juries could continue. 

Aiello says "there have been dozens of attempts to get this to the Supreme Court since 1972, and every time the Supreme Court has refused to hear it again."

That is, until now.

There’s a couple of ways this could go down. If the Court decides non-unanimous juries are unconstitutional, Ben Cohen, Mr. Ramos’ attorney, says his client would get a new trial, "and he’d get a trial where the voice of every juror mattered.”

But as Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, points out, the rule would not necessarily be applied retroactively.

“We're going to need some further discussion as to how far back this goes and what relief is allowed,” explains Armstrong.

The Court could provide some clarity in it’s decision.

Paul Baier, a professor at LSU Law School, predicts the Court will reverse its previous ruling and require unanimous juries in state trials. But he expects the rule would only be applied to future cases, "because the old rule has been applied, people are in prison.  But if you open up those cases, you unravel them, that’s a serious disruption of previous law legitimately applied.”

No matter what the Court decides, juries in Louisiana must be unanimous going forward because voters have said so.

And while the Supreme Court of the 1970s said non-unanimous juries passed a constitutional test, Baier says that was a different court than the one today, especially with new members like Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

“These two members of the Court are enthusiasts to a whole school of thought that looks to, well, what’s the original meaning of the Constitution? So the original meaning of the right to trial by jury is the right to trial by jury that’s unanimous in its decision," explains Baier. 

The case is expected to be heard in October, with a decision likely in March of next year.

Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Wallis Watkins is a Baton Rouge native. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy from Louisiana State University in 2013. Soon after, she joined WRKF as an intern and is now reporting on health and health policy for Louisiana's Prescription.

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