The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that all criminal trials require a unanimous vote to convict a defendant. The decision applies to cases tried in both federal and state courts. Oregon and Louisiana were the only two states that allowed defendants to be convicted based on a 10-2 vote.
Reversing a Previous Decision
The Supreme Court last took up the issue of non-unanimous votes in 1972 in Apodaca v. Oregon. Then, it decided that nothing in the Constitution barred states from having divided votes. The ruling was made even as the Court recognized that federal courts required unanimous votes in criminal cases. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that the previous decision was "egregiously wrong."
Non-Unanimous Voting Based on Prejudice
Both the Supreme Court, as well as Oregon and Louisiana, recognized that laws allowing convictions stemming from non-unanimous votes were founded on racial and religious prejudice. The rules minimized the voices of minorities and made it easier to convict people of color.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said that the racially-motivated 10-2 voting systems violated a defendant's Constitutional right to a jury trial. As such, the practice should no longer be valid. Gorsuch was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas.
Justice Samuel Alito, for the dissenting opinion, said that reversing the 1972 decision put a burden on state courts. He stated that Oregon and Louisiana had tried numerous criminal cases based on their non-unanimous laws, and ruling that the practice was unconstitutional meant that the states would have to consider retrying many of those cases. Alito was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan.
Gorsuch countered the dissent by stating that it was more of an injustice to continue the 10-2 vote system than to reverse the previously erroneous decision. The Court's interest should be in upholding Constitutional protections.
Supreme Court's Ruling Effect on Current and Previous Cases
The Supreme Court's recent 6-3 decision overturned the murder conviction of E. Ramos. He was found guilty by a 10-2 vote in Louisiana and sentenced to life in prison. The Court's ruling will also affect cases currently under appeal.
As reported by KTVZ News Channel 21, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said that his office was reviewing cases decided by non-unanimous vote, and would likely retry four. In Oregon, the 10-2 law applied to felony cases; misdemeanors still required a unanimous vote.
In 2018, Louisianans voted to change the state's non-unanimous law, which applied to crimes committed after January 1, 2019, but not to those decided before that date.
For Legal Help and Guidance, Call Baxter Harder, LLC
If you or a loved one was charged with or convicted of a crime, the Supreme Court's decision may affect your case. To learn more about your legal options and protecting your Constitutional rights, reach out to Baxter Harder, LLC. Our Bend attorneys have extensive legal experience and remain current on changes in the criminal justice system. We can help you understand the process and guide you through your case.
Call us at (541) 238-9210 or contact us online today.