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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that state juries must be unanimous to convict defendants in criminal trials, overturning the Louisiana second-degree murder conviction of Evangelisto Ramos that resulted in a life sentence when a jury found him guilty with a 10-2 vote.
The court noted that 48 states — and more importantly federal courts — already required unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, with only Lousiana and Oregon holding out by accepting 10-2 decisions.
“[T]he Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is incorporated against the States under the Fourteenth Amendment,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “Thus, if the jury trial right requires a unanimous verdict in federal court, it requires no less in state court.”
The court also recalled that Louisiana and Oregon’s acceptance of nonunanimous decisions originated with desires to minimize the effect of minority voices on juries. A committee chairman said that the purpose of the 1898 constitutional convention where nonunanimous decisions were first endorsed was to “establish the supremacy of the white race.”
The court said Oregon’s adoption of nonunanimous verdicts “can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute ‘the influence of racial, ethnic and religious minorities on Oregon juries.'”
The court’s ruling overturned its 1972 decision in Apodaca v. Oregon. Monday’s 6-3 decision featured conservative and liberal justices joining on both sides, with Justice Gorsuch’s opinion being joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas writing concurring opinions.
Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan. Alito warned that the overruling of longstanding precedent “marks an important turn” if the court’s approach is not limited to this particular case.
“Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority casts aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered,” Alito wrote, noting that Lousiana and Oregon tried thousands of criminal cases without requiring unanimous verdicts because they believed the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling was valid.
Overturning that ruling, Alito argued, “imposes a potentially crushing burden on the courts and criminal justice systems of those States.” He claimed that the majority “brushes aside these consequences and even suggests that the States should have known better than to count on our decision.”
Louisiana voters nevertheless had approved a state constitutional amendment in 2018 to require unanimous verdicts for crimes committed after Jan. 1, 2019.
Fox News’ Shannon Bream and Bill Mears contributed to this report.