On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that defendants in criminal trials will only be convicted by a unanimous jury. According to The Hill, the court said in a divided opinion that the Constitution calls for agreement among all members of a jury in order to enact a guilty verdict.
Oregon is currently the only state left in the country that allows defendants to be convicted over the dissent of up to two jurors. Louisiana only recently abandoned the practice after more than a century of use.
As a result of this new ruling, the 2016 conviction of a Louisiana man has been overturned. Evangelisto Ramos was found guilty of killing a woman in New Orleans by a 10-2 margin. Ramos will likely receive a new trial under this latest ruling.
One of Ramos’s attorneys, Ben Cohen, said in a statement, “We have been bringing challenges to Louisiana’s outlier split jury rule to the U.S. Supreme Court since 2004.” He continued, “We are heartened that the Court has held, once and for all, that the promise of the Sixth Amendment fully applies in Louisiana, rejecting any concept of second-class justice. In light of the COVID-19 crisis, it is essential that prisoners who are wrongfully incarcerated be given the chance for release as soon as possible.”
Cohen, who is also a lawyer with the Promise of Justice Initiative, revealed that the Louisiana-based nonprofit is now working to identify other convicts in the state who are in prison despite non-unanimous jury verdicts.
Justice Neil Gorsuch was joined by five other justices who ruled the practice unconstitutional.
“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—whether it’s common law, state practices in the founding era, or opinions and treatises written soon afterward—the answer is unmistakable,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in an opinion. “A jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict.”
However, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Elena Kagan dissented from the decision. In his dissent, Alito said that it was wrong for the court to overturn a 48-year-old ruling, which allowed states to implement non-unanimous jury laws, according to The Hill.
“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,” Alito wrote. “If the majority’s approach is not just a way to dispose of this one case, the decision marks an important turn.”
The non-unanimity rules in both Oregon and Louisiana were ruled by the majority to be racist and implemented in an effort to make it easier to convict black people and other ethnic minorities.
“On what ground would anyone have us leave Mr. Ramos in prison for the rest of his life?” Gorsuch wrote. “Not a single member of this Court is prepared to say Louisiana secured his conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment. No one before us suggests that the error was harmless. Louisiana does not claim precedent commands an affirmance.”
He went on to say, “In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others.”