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Unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases

One of my favorite movies of all time is “12 Angry Men” starring Henry Fonda, which was released in 1957.

The story centers around the deliberations of a New York City jury when it is deciding the fate of a young defendant who has been charged with murdering his father.

Without giving the entire plot away, suffice it to say that Mr. Fonda turns out to be the only holdout juror to vote not guilty. The jury then conducts a thorough discussion of the evidence and the defendant is ultimately found not guilty by a unanimous vote.

Fast forward to April 20, 2020 when the United States Supreme Court released its decision in Ramos v Louisiana.

This case involves Mr. Evangelisto Ramos who was convicted of murder in Louisiana in 2016 by a jury vote of 10 to 2. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

At the time, Louisiana was one of only two states (Oregon being the other) which did not require a unanimous verdict for criminal convictions.

Mr. Ramos appealed and claimed his non-unanimous verdict was unconstitutional.

In a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court agreed and held for the first time that under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution unanimous verdicts in state criminal cases are required. Federal courts already have this requirement.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the main opinion of the court.

He traced the history of this requirement back to 14th century England and found that in 1791, when the Sixth Amendment was ratified by the states, it included requiring unanimous verdicts.

He also found that the original reason for allowing less than unanimous verdicts in both Louisiana and Oregon was racially based to ensure that minorities’ juror service would be meaningless or the influence diluted.

Justice Gorsuch then determined that a 1972 Supreme Court case, Apodaca v Oregon, allowing such laws, was no longer binding precedent and should be overruled. The reasons included the court having previously found at least 13 times that unanimity was a requirement.

In the end, the central message of “12 Angry Men” has in essence been confirmed — when a person’s freedom is at stake it is critical to make sure that one has all the information and only then make a decision.

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