Louisiana case is U.S. Supreme Court’s chance to fully eliminate non-unanimous jury verdicts, attorney says
WASHINGTON – Louisiana voters have already done away with non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases but U.S. Supreme Court justices have for months been mulling a case from the state that could decide whether such laws could ever again be revived.
The old Jim Crow law that allows for less than unanimous jury verdicts needs to completely die and remain that way because it is, indeed, unconstitutional, an appellate attorney and constitutional legal expert told the Louisiana Record.
“The Supreme Court should rule that the Constitution guarantees the right to a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal cases,” Dayna Zolle, an appellate counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank and law firm Constitutional Accountability Center, said in an email interview. “The framers of the Constitution understood that jury unanimity was a critical component of the right to a fair trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment in criminal cases, and empirical evidence underscores the importance of this protection.”
The nation’s highest court previously ruled that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a unanimous jury verdict in federal criminal cases and the Louisiana case argued last fall is a chance for the court to “recognize that the same guarantee applies in state criminal cases,” Zolle said.
“In other words, the court should hold that criminal defendants in state court, like criminal defendants in federal court, cannot be convicted except by a unanimous verdict of their peers,” she said.
Louisiana voters decided in 2018 to do away with non-unanimous jury verdicts, so the question would seem moot in the state, except for those convicted by non-unanimous juries before that vote.
“Because Louisiana now requires unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials, the [Supreme] Court’s decision would only affect convictions in Louisiana that predate that recent change,” Zolle said. “If the Supreme Court recognizes that the Constitution requires a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal cases and that this rule applies retroactively to convictions reached before the court’s decision, then those convicted by non-unanimous juries could seek a new trial where they might finally enjoy all of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.”
A decision in that direction also benefits those convicted by non-unanimous juries in the past that still allows non-unanimous convictions and would ensure that no state ever again takes up such laws.
“On the other hand, a decision that the Constitution does not guarantee the right to a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal trials would ignore the Constitution’s text and history – as well as empirical evidence demonstrating the importance of unanimity in jury deliberations – and it would mean that those convicted by non-unanimous juries would continue to be deprived of a crucial protection enshrined in the Constitution,” Zolle said.
The Louisiana case now awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision stems from the 2016 second-degree murder conviction of Evangelisto Ramos in the killing of New Orleans resident Trinece Monique Fedison about two years prior. The New Orleans jury deliberated less than two hours before reaching 10-to-2 verdict to find then 43-year-old Central City man guilty.
Ramos was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance for parole.
More than two years later, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases. The vote followed a push for change by legal scholars and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by The Advocate on the racial impacts of Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict law.
Oregon now is the last remaining state to allow non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases and the Justice Department in that state appears determined to hang onto that law.
Meanwhile, the amendment to Louisiana’s Constitution took effect Jan. 1 of last year but was not retroactive. That meant it was no help for Ramos or other felons convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts prior to that date.
Instead, Ramos appealed his conviction before Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, claiming the non-unanimous jury verdict was a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The state appeals court affirmed Ramos’ conviction and sentence and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied review, which set the case for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In September 2018, the nation’s highest court granted certiorari, agreeing to hear Ramos v Louisiana on the question of whether the 14th Amendment fully incorporates the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict.
The case was argued before Supreme Court justices last October, with California-based Stanford University Law Professor Jeffrey L. Fisher appearing on behalf of Ramos and Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill appearing on behalf of the state.
“This is one of the Supreme Court cases that has been outstanding the longest this term, so the court could decide the case any day now,” Zolle said.