Civil and Human Rights

“10 Angry Men” Isn’t Enough: Will The Supreme Court Finally Step In To Stop States From Violating Fundamental Constitutional Rights?

In the classic American film, 12 Angry Men, a lone juror deliberating on the fate of a man charged with murder is able to convince his fellow jurors, through careful study of the evidence and thoughtful discussion, to switch their votes from guilty to not guilty, thus ensuring justice was done. But in some places in our country, the movie would have been much shorter and the result entirely different–because in those states, ten out of twelve jurors voting guilty is enough to send a person away to prison for the rest of his life.

This is patently unconstitutional, and it’s past time for the Supreme Court to step in and do something about it.

Every year defendants in Louisiana and Oregon, the two states that allow such a practice, are convicted of crimes and subjected to penalties as severe as life in prison without parole even though juries of their peers are unable to arrive at the unanimous conclusion that they are guilty. This violates the Sixth Amendment’s fundamental guarantee of trial by jury, which our nation’s Founders understood to require that the truth of every accusation against a defendant be confirmed by the unanimous vote of twelve of his equals and neighbors.

Research has confirmed the important role that jury unanimity plays in producing thorough deliberations in which all viewpoints are considered. As then-Judge–and now Supreme Court Justice–Anthony Kennedy explained, “[a] rule which insists on unanimity furthers the deliberative process by requiring the minority view to be examined and, if possible, accepted or rejected by the entire jury.” More credible and reliable verdicts are reached when juries are required to be unanimous.

But despite the fact that Founding-era philosophy and modern empirical science back up the constitutional right to require a prosecutor to convince all members of a jury that a defendant is guilty before sending him away to prison for life, the Supreme Court has allowed these two hold-out states to continue to use non-unanimous jury verdicts. A new challenge, Jackson v. Louisiana, has made its way to the steps of the Supreme Court and offers the Court a fresh opportunity to right this constitutional wrong.

The Jackson case illustrates the importance of requiring unanimous jury verdicts. The case involves a shooting that occurred late at night, outside a bar after many of the witnesses had been drinking. The evidence implicating Ortiz Jackson, who has denied any involvement in the shooting, consisted largely of eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. There was no DNA or forensic evidence that implicated Mr. Jackson. Because so much turned on the credibility of the witnesses, Mr. Jackson’s case is exactly when procedural protections and vigorous and careful jury consideration are particularly important. Louisiana’s nonunanimity rule denied Mr. Jackson one of the most important procedural protections our criminal justice system can provide–the requirement that the State convince twelve of the defendant’s peers of his guilt. Two jurors from Jackson’s trial refused to vote “guilty” after considering the evidence. But because ten other jurors did vote to convict, Mr. Jackson is currently serving life without possibility of parole.

Mr. Jackson has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his claims, and the Court should do so. Sending a person to prison even though all twelve jurors could not be convinced that he is guilty is unconstitutional. Americans in every state in the nation deserve to see their constitutional right to a jury trial respected in the courtroom, and not just at the movies.


Photo: Criterion Collection

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