Criminal Law

Edwards v. Vannoy

In Edwards v. Vannoy, the Supreme Court held that its decision in Ramos v. Louisiana—guaranteeing criminal defendants in both state and federal court the right to a unanimous jury verdict—does not apply retroactively to cases on federal collateral review.

Case Summary

In Ramos v. Louisiana, a Supreme Court case decided in April 2020, the Court held that a criminal defendant in state court as well as in federal court has a Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury verdict.  CAC filed an amicus brief in that case on behalf of law professors and social scientists arguing that unanimity has historically been an essential element of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial trial by jury in criminal cases and highlighting the empirical benefits of requiring unanimous jury verdicts.

Prior to the Court’s decision in Ramos, petitioner Thedrick Edwards, an African American man, was convicted of numerous serious crimes, all by votes of 10-2 or 11-1 by a jury in the state of Louisiana.  At the time, Louisiana was one of two states that allowed convictions based on non-unanimous jury verdicts.  On each charge, Mr. Edwards was found guilty “over the lone Black juror’s vote to acquit.”  As a result, Mr. Edwards was sentenced, among other things, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld Mr. Edwards’ convictions and sentences, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied review.  After issuing its decision in Ramos, which recognized a criminal defendant’s right to a unanimous jury verdict in state court, the Supreme Court granted review of Mr. Edwards’ case to determine whether that rule applies retroactively to cases like his on federal habeas review.

As in Ramos, CAC filed an amicus brief on behalf of law professors and social scientists in support of Mr. Edwards, arguing that the Ramos rule should apply retroactively.  Our brief made two key points.  First, we explained that empirical research demonstrates that the Ramos rule is necessary to prevent an impermissibly large risk of inaccurate convictions, satisfying the first prong of the standard the Court had articulated for determining whether a new rule applies retroactively.  Specifically, a jury unanimity requirement reduces the frequency of error by producing more thorough deliberations and by fostering greater consideration of minority viewpoints.  A jury unanimity requirement also increases juror confidence in the accuracy of jury verdicts.  Second, we argued that the Ramos rule altered the Court’s understanding of the bedrock elements essential to the fairness of a proceeding, satisfying the second prong of the relevant legal standard.  The Framers of the Sixth Amendment understood that a unanimous jury requirement was an essential component of a fair jury trial.  Yet the Supreme Court’s heavily divided decision in a case called Apodaca v. Oregon in 1972 meant that until the Court decided Ramos in 2020, criminal defendants in state court could be denied the right to a unanimous jury verdict.  Thus, the Court’s decision in Ramos altered its understanding of the bedrock right to jury unanimity.  As a result, we argued that the Ramos rule satisfied the legal standard for retroactive application and should be implemented in cases like Mr. Edwards’ on federal collateral review.

In May 2021, however, the Court held that its decision in Ramos does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.  The Court first determined that Ramos announced a “new rule” of criminal procedure.  Although the Court had previously explained that a new procedural rule may apply retroactively on federal collateral review if it is a “watershed” rule that changes the Court’s “understanding of the bedrock procedural elements essential to the fairness of a proceeding,” the Court in Edwards declared that “no new rules of criminal procedure can satisfy the watershed exception.”  In other words, the Court held that “[n]ew procedural rules do not apply retroactively on collateral review,” without any exceptions.

In dissent, Justice Kagan (joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor) echoed CAC’s amicus brief, asserting that the Ramos unanimity rule “is as ‘bedrock’ as bedrock comes” and therefore should apply retroactively because it is “part of the Sixth Amendment’s original meaning.”

Case Timeline

  • July 22, 2020

    CAC files amici curiae brief on behalf of law professors and social scientists

    Sup. Ct. Amici Br.
  • November 30, 2020

    The Supreme Court hears oral argument

  • May 17, 2021

    The Supreme Court issues its decision