Supreme Court debates ‘racist’ jury laws

| Jan 12, 2021 | Post-conviction Relief |

An anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling could invalidate hundreds of criminal convictions in Oregon and Louisiana over challenges to Jim Crow jury laws.

In a Louisiana case, the high court ruled last April that allowing convictions by nonunanimous juries violates the Sixth Amendment. In December, justices weighed whether that ruling should apply to previous nonunanimous convictions.

Protecting the rights of criminal defendants

The Sixth Amendment holds that people accused of a crime have the right to a speedy and public trial. It also guarantees:

  • An impartial jury hears the case
  • The case is tried in the state and district where the crime was allegedly committed
  • Defendants know who their accusers are
  • The right to understand the nature of the charges and evidence against them
  • The right for favorable witnesses
  • The right to defense counsel

Ramos v. Louisiana

Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of a 2014 murder, with 10 jurors finding him guilty while two jurors found him not guilty. Under Louisiana’s law at the time, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole.

Ramos appealed the conviction, and the state appellate court upheld the lower court ruling. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to review the case, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted a review in April 2020 and reached a 6-3 majority ruling declaring nonunanimous jury decisions unconstitutional.

Justices appear to be divided

Louisiana lawmakers voted to end nonunanimous jury decisions in 2019, and the high court’s April ruling effectively overturns Oregon’s Constitution allowing nonunanimous juries. The Supreme Court is now considering Edwards v. Louisiana to decide whether the Ramos ruling can be applied retroactively.

Thedrick Edwards was convicted of rape and kidnapping charges by a split jury in a 2006 case. His lawyer argued before the high court that a conviction is only legal if the case is proven “beyond a reasonable doubt to all jurors.”

During the December oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan said the court’s April decision should apply to both past and future cases. However, Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh were skeptical that the Ramos decision should apply to other similar cases.

An overwhelming majority of cases show racial bias

The nonprofit Promise of Justice Initiative analyzed hundreds of Louisiana cases finding that 80% of the 1,500 people convicted by nonunanimous juries were Black, and 62% are serving life sentences without parole. Nearly 300 Oregon cases could be affected when the Supreme Court issues its ruling later in its term.