In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts to convict defendants in state criminal trials. The case, Ramos v. Louisiana, overturns longstanding precedent that enabled state trial courts to convict criminal defendants without all jurors reaching a unanimous consensus on a verdict.
The vast majority of states require that a criminal defendant be convicted at trial by a unanimous jury verdict. Only two states have had laws to the contrary, Louisiana and Oregon. Louisiana’s law was repealed in 2019, leaving Oregon as the only state that still permitted non-unanimous jury verdicts to convict defendants in criminal cases.
In 2014, Evangelisto Ramos was charged in Louisiana with second-degree murder and exercised his right to trial by jury. Ramos was convicted at trial by a 10-2 verdict from the jury and received a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Under Louisiana’s then non-unanimous jury verdict law, the agreement of at least ten jurors was all that was needed to convict a criminal defendant at trial.
On appeal, Ramos argued that Louisiana’s rule, violated his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. He also believed that the law, imbedded in the state’s constitution since 1898, was deeply rooted in racism because it was adopted so that white majorities in the Jim Crow South could outvote black minorities in the jury box. Louisiana maintained that the Sixth Amendment does not require states to convict criminal defendants in a unanimous fashion. Further, Louisiana stressed that if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of Ramos, over 32,000 prisoners would petition for new trials in the state.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Ramos. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch opined that the Sixth Amendment “requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense.” Gorsuch, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kavanaugh, and Sotomayor, wrote that the Sixth Amendment applies to states like Louisiana through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Gorsuch also largely agreed with Ramos’ contention that the practice of non-unanimous jury verdicts was rooted in racial prejudice. Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority’s decision in a separate concurrence.
This ruling breaks with a 1972 decision, Apodaca v. Oregon, which held that the Sixth Amendment required unanimous jury verdicts for federal criminal trials, but not for state criminal trials.
In a sharp dissent, Justice Samuel Alito criticized the majority for not adhering to stare decisis, the doctrine of following the precedent of previous cases. Joined by Justices Roberts and Kagan, Alito stated that the Apodaca case should be retained because Louisiana relied upon it for nearly 50 years and conducted tens of thousands of trials under the system. He warned that now the state will face “a potential tsunami of litigation,” as defendants convicted with less than a unanimous verdict will now seek to have a new trial. This long-overdue ruling will result in Ramos receiving a new trial as well as many more filing petitions for the same remedy.
There are two aspects of this case that stand out to me. First, no matter how long it takes, there should never be an acceptance of a law that was built upon prejudicial motivations and has the effect of discriminating against any person based upon race, color, creed, or sexual identity. Second, even though an argument has been made before, a lawyer must not be dissuaded from making it again. Here, and in so many other cases, we have seen devoted lawyers persist until the court decided that the argument should now be heard for no other reason other than that it was a different day. This is a great victory for individual rights.