The Right to a Unanimous Verdict
Does a state court criminal defendant have the right to a unanimous jury decision to convict? In all but one state, Oregon, yes. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a unanimous jury verdict in federal criminal trials. Currently, however, any state could enact a non-unanimous rule. For example, in Oregon, since 1934, a criminal defendant can be convicted with just 10 of 12 votes to convict.
On October 7, 2019, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Ramos v. Louisiana. In Ramos, the Court will decide whether the Sixth Amendment guarantees a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal trials.
In 2018, Louisiana repealed a law that permitted a criminal defendant (except in a capital case) to be convicted by a non-unanimous jury. However, the change was not made retroactive. Evangelisto Ramos was convicted in Louisiana of a 2014 murder under the non-unanimity rule after 10 of the 12 jurors voted to convict him. Following the 2018 repeal of the non-unanimity rule in Louisiana, Ramos challenged the constitutionality of the non-unanimity rule under which he was convicted.
In 1972, in Apodaca v. Oregan, the Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a unanimous jury, however, that right does not extend to state court defendants. The Apodaca decision was less than a harmonious decision, with four justices ruling that the Sixth Amendment does not require a unanimous jury, four justices would have ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous verdict in state and federal courts, and a lone justice would have ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury in federal criminal trials, but not for state trials.
The issue of whether a constitutional right guaranteed in the first ten Amendments (the Bill of Rights) of the United States Constitution applies to the states is not a new one. The Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has routinely been invoked throughout history to make a constitutional right enforceable against the states. The decisions by the Court as to which rights in the Bill of Rights are incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment have been selective. However, the modern view is that the rights incorporated are those rights fundamental to the American scheme of justice.
The justices’ questions to the attorneys during oral arguments in Ramos indicate the Court is leaning towards a ruling in favor of Ramos. The Court pointed out that the non-unanimity rule was rooted in in racism and a desire to diminish the votes of black jurors, that the right to a unanimous jury is as important and fundamental as any rights already incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the precedent of Apodaca was a splintered decision. Also, in the Court’s most recent term to the oral arguments, the Eighth’s Amendment’s excessive fines clause was held applicable to the states.
The Court’s decision in Ramos is pending.