Supreme Court Considers Whether Ruling on Nonunanimous Convictions Should Apply Retroactively

December 2, 2020 Updated: December 2, 2020

A Supreme Court decision earlier this year that barred nonunanimous jury convictions should be applied retroactively to existing split-jury convictions, the lawyer for a Louisiana inmate imprisoned for life told the justices.

Oral argument took place over 86 minutes telephonically on Dec. 2, in the case known as Edwards v. Vannoy, an appeal from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Only 60 minutes had been allotted for the hearing.

The issue before the court was whether Ramos v. Louisiana, a case the Supreme Court decided April 20, applies retrospectively to cases on federal collateral review, meaning “a judicial reexamination of a judgment or claim in a proceeding outside of the direct review process.”

In the Ramos decision, which The Epoch Times previously reported, the court found that convicting an accused person of a serious offense with a less-than-unanimous jury verdict, as Oregon and Louisiana had allowed, ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a right to a jury trial.

Those states take the position that nonunanimous convictions already on the books should remain intact. The Trump administration supports the states in the case.

The 6–3 decision on split-jury verdicts overturned Apodaca v. Oregon, a 1972 Supreme Court precedent that upheld the constitutionality of nonunanimous criminal convictions in serious felony cases tried in state courts.

Before the Ramos ruling, in 48 states and federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit was enough to prevent a conviction, but Louisiana and Oregon had long punished people convicted with 10-to-2 verdicts.

In that case, Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder in a Louisiana court by a 10-to-2 jury verdict. Instead of the mistrial that he would have received almost anywhere else, Ramos received a sentence of life without parole.

After that conviction, Louisiana changed the law, banning nonunanimous convictions for offenses committed, starting in 2019. The change didn’t benefit the already-convicted Ramos, so he took his case to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that “the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial—as incorporated against the States by way of the Fourteenth Amendment—requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense.”

The practice of allowing nonunanimous convictions was rooted in past racial animus, he wrote.

“Courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.”

Now, Thedrick Edwards is asking the Supreme Court to grant his appeal. Edwards, a black man, was convicted in 2007 of armed robbery, kidnapping, and rape by a nonunanimous jury in Louisiana and given a life sentence. The single member of the jury who was black voted to acquit Edwards on all counts.

Edwards’s lawyer, Andre Belanger, quoted from the Ramos decision during oral arguments, saying “a verdict by 11 is no verdict at all.”

But the “laudable” ruling “would only apply to cases then pending or recently adjudicated,” he said. “It meant nothing to Mr. Edwards, who is serving a life sentence at Angola for a verdict that would be illegal everywhere else, as Louisiana is the only place that would jail you for natural life on a nonunanimous verdict.”

The question is “why should the Sixth Amendment mean something less to Mr. Edwards?”

Chief Justice John Roberts told Belanger his client would have to overcome the court’s previous ruling that the right to a jury trial couldn’t be applied retroactively.

“What we’re talking about here is a subordinate right to a unanimous verdict, a lesser included right,” said Roberts.

In response to a question from Justice Clarence Thomas, Belanger said the American legal tradition “puts together the reasonable doubt and the unanimous jury … We want people to come together as a community to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that this person needs to be deprived of their liberty.”

Studies suggest “that the effectiveness of deliberation is simply cut short when you don’t have to have a unanimous jury, and that systemically leads to the possibility of an inaccurate conviction,” the attorney said.

Justice Stephen Breyer asked Belanger to estimate “if you win, how many new trials in Louisiana will be called for?”

The lawyer replied the maximum figure is 1,600 people, though not all of those individuals will be able to establish that they had a nonunanimous jury.

“It’s probably closer to a thousand.”

Breyer asked if the Louisiana courts could handle such a rush of cases, to which Belanger said, “The system is more than capable of accommodating this type of caseload.”

NOLA.com reported last month that upwards of 1,500 current Louisiana inmates were convicted with nonunanimous jury verdicts. In the Pelican State, four out of five of those inmates are black.

Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill said all those new cases would strain the state’s judicial system.

“You can’t just hand out cases to anybody who happens to be an assistant district attorney,” she said.

“I mean, some of those people actually enforce laws in city court and—or do—you know, they collect money from—they do civil cases.”