Supreme Court Rules That State Juries Must be Unanimous

Just before Thanksgiving in 2014, the body of a woman named Trinece Fedison, 43, was found stuffed in a garbage can in New Orleans, LA.

Her death was grisly – and may have involved sexual assault as well. DNA in her body and on the garbage can handles, pointed to Evangelisto Ramos, an oil rig supply boat worker, whose resume included “butcher.”

The New Orleans jury deliberated for 2 hours, voted 10 to 2 in favor of guilt, and sentenced Ramos to life in prison in 2016 – without the possibility of parole.

You would be correct in thinking the events sound like fodder for a crime drama – Fedison’s story and that of her accused murderer were featured on A&E’s docudrama, “The First 48.”

Yet, the events were far from over. In 48 states (the exceptions being Louisiana and Oregon) the verdict from a jury decision of 10 to 2 would have resulted in a mistrial.

Represented by a passionate attorney, G. Ben Cohen, Ramos appealed all the way to the Supreme Court citing his constitutional rights were violated because he was not convicted by a unanimous jury verdict.

The question posed was: Does the Fourteenth Amendment fully incorporate the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict?

The case was argued October 7th, 2019 and decided April 20th, 2020.

Here is a refresher on the relevant amendments:

  • the sixth amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial;
  • the fourteenth amendment provides a unanimous verdict to convict of a serious offence.

The majority opinion of the court, which reversed the lower court’s’ decision, was delivered by Justice Neil Gorsuch. With a nod to the arguments presented in Ramos’ appeals, he writes that the history of unanimous verdicts dates back to 14th century England and reflects legal doctrine incorporated into our country’s early legal systems as they were being formed.

Gorsuch closed with the following:

“Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.”

Justice Alito dissented, stating that courts would “face a potential tsunami of litigation on the jury unanimity issue. At a minimum, all defendants whose cases are still on direct appeal will presumably be entitled to a new trial if they were convicted by a less-than-unanimous verdict and preserved the issue in the trial court. And at least in Oregon, even if no objection was voiced at trial, defendants may be able to challenge their convictions based on plain error,” Alito wrote, adding that there are currently more than 1,000 defendants presently on direct appeal in Oregon.

Ramos v. Louisiana does not reflect the first attempt to bring this issue before the Supreme Court – nor is it G. Ben Cohen’s first rodeo. The attorney has a successful history as a defense attorney and was instrumental in creating the Capital Appeals Project and the Promise of Justice Initiative. Previous Supreme Court cases which were taken into consideration were: Apodaca v. Oregon and a companion case, Johnson v. Louisiana.

Could race be a factor in a state’s efforts to uphold allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts? Yes.

Justice Kavanaugh, concurring in part with the majority opinion, wrote: “In light of the racist origins of the non-unanimous jury, it is no surprise that non-unanimous juries can make a difference in practice, especially in cases involving black defendants, victims, or jurors. After all, that was the whole point of adopting the non-unanimous jury requirement in the first place. And the math has not changed. Then and now, 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 10 jurors ‘can simply ignore the views of their fellow panel members of a different race or class.’”

“Today, Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws are fully—and rightly—relegated to the dustbin of history,” wrote Justice Sotomayer, who concurred in part with the majority opinion.


 

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