Jackson v. Louisiana: the constitutional right to a unanimous jury

This week, Constitutional Accountability Center, along with our co-counsel, Ben Cohen of The Promise of Justice Initiative, filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Ortiz T. Jackson, urging the Court to hear his case, Jackson v. Louisiana. This is the first time CAC has represented an individual seeking review. 

Jackson v. Louisiana raises a question central to the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a trial by jury: whether an individual may be convicted of a crime even if the jury in his case cannot reach a unanimous verdict.  Both Louisiana and Oregon, alone among the 50 states, permit non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, and each year, criminal defendants in those states are convicted by non-unanimous juries, even in felony cases that carry a potential sentence of life in prison.  In November 2008, the state of Louisiana charged Mr. Jackson with murder.  Mr. Jackson, who has denied any involvement in the murder, filed a motion to require a unanimous jury verdict, which was denied by the trial court.  Mr. Jackson was subsequently found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury vote of 10-2, and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor without the benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.  The appeals court affirmed Mr. Jackson’s conviction, and the state supreme court denied Mr. Jackson’s request for review.

State courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have refused to consider the constitutionality of their respective state’s non-unanimous jury rule based primarily on the Supreme Court’s badly fractured 4-1-4 decision in the 1972 case Apodaca v. Oregon, which held that state criminal juries may convict a defendant without unanimous jury consent.  Our cert. petition in Jackson demonstrates that Apodaca is not only inconsistent with the history and purposes of the Sixth Amendment, but also with the Court’s more recent case law, and urges the Court to review Jackson in order to put an end to the unconstitutional practices in Louisiana and Oregon. 

We argue, among other things, that convicting criminal defendants without the unanimous consent of a jury denies these individuals a right that the Framers viewed as fundamental.  As our petition demonstrates, the Framers understood the unanimity of a jury to be as much a part of the jury right as the right to a jury of one’s neighbors and peers.  To the Framers, the requirement of jury unanimity was critical to ensuring the full and fair jury deliberations that the Sixth Amendment requires.  Indeed, more recent empirical research supports the Framers’ view that jury unanimity is essential to the jury as a bulwark of liberty.  Specifically, evidence has shown that when unanimity is required, jurors evaluate evidence more thoroughly, spend more time deliberating, and are more likely to consider all viewpoints.

The Court will likely decide later this year whether to hear Jackson.