David J. Celuch
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Non-unanimous verdicts ignite controversy

Did you know that Oregon is one of only two states where crime convictions can happen with a non-unanimous jury verdict? This law, which failed to be overturned last fall, isn’t going anywhere soon. What is the origin of this law that is also practiced in Louisiana, what is involved with this type of conviction, and what are criticisms of it?

The History

The motivators behind the 1934 vote to instate non-unanimous verdicts were a pair of infamous murders in Portland and the resulting conviction that came from the trial. One juror did not agree with the second-degree murder charge, so the jury made a compromise and convicted Jake Silverman of manslaughter. This lesser conviction upset and enraged the community at large, which provided the impetus for legal action.

The Practice

Convictions are allowed for felonies with even a 10-2 jury decision. Even though a murder trial was the inspiration for the law, a first-degree murder charge is exempt from this practice. There have been challenges to the law, but nothing has budged in over 80 years.

Most recently, the unsuccessful 2016 appeal by Olan Jermaine Williams focused on as a motivator for the law. Williams, an African American, was convicted of a felony by a non-unanimous jury. The only juror that voted not guilty was also the only African American on the jury.

The Divergent Opinions

Some Oregon citizens question the constitutionality of state-level non-unanimous and others state that it is a remaining piece of institutionalized racism. In the Washington Post, Professor Angela Allen-Bell quoted John Adams statement from 1797, “It is the unanimity of the jury that preserves the rights of mankind.”

The Importance of an Excellent Defense

Even though federal courts in Oregon use unanimous juries to provide decisions, non-unanimous juries are the rule for any state level charge. This highlights the need for experienced and capable legal representation when up against felony charges in this state.

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