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Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Holds States Accountable to Abiding by Sixth Amendment Standard of Unanimous Jury Verdict in Criminal Cases

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Published on: April 21, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that states must abide by the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of unanimous jury verdicts for convictions in criminal cases involving “serious offenses.” Pushing back against the idea that the application of fundamental constitutional rights is dependent on what state you live in, The Rutherford Institute had filed an amicus brief in Ramos v. Louisiana, asking the Supreme Court to prevent the states from “watering down” the rights of criminal defendants and arguing that the right to a unanimous jury in criminal cases—a right dating back to the Magna Carta—should be uniform throughout the United States. The case arose after a Louisiana man, Evangelisto Ramos, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison based on circumstantial evidence that failed to convince all 12 jurors that he was guilty. At the time, Louisiana allowed non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases. In overruling a 1972 precedent in Apodaca v. Oregon, the Court incorporated the Sixth Amendment’s protections as being necessary to justice and applicable to the states.

Affiliate attorneys Michael J. Lockerby, David A. Hickerson, Jay N. Varon and Heather A. Lee of Foley & Lardner assisted The Rutherford Institute in presenting its arguments.

“Justice should not be contingent on where one lives,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Thankfully, the Supreme Court recognized that the right to a unanimous jury verdict, which is firmly rooted in America’s history, tradition, and conscience, is indeed fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.”

The case arose after Evangelisto Ramos was charged with murder, based on circumstantial evidence, for the stabbing death of a prostitute, Trinece Fedison.

Although two members of the 12-member jury believed the state had not proven that Ramos committed the murder, Ramos was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole because the Louisiana law in effect at the time allowed a conviction based on a non-unanimous jury verdict.

In 2018, Louisiana’s voters amended the State Constitution to require unanimity, though only for crimes committed after 2018.

In weighing in on Ramos v. State of Louisiana, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a unanimous verdict is a fundamental right fully applicable to the states.

The Sixth Amendment provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.”

The right to a trial by jury guarantees that an accused will be convicted only when all jurors, the only impartial persons who have the benefit of all of the evidence for and against guilt, conclude that the accused is guilty.

Unanimity in jury verdicts is required where the Sixth and Seventh Amendments apply.

In criminal cases, this requirement of unanimity extends to all issues—character or degree of the crime, guilt and punishment—which are left to the jury.

The Supreme Court has recognized this unanimity requirement “virtually without dissent” since the 1800s.

Like the right to a jury trial and the right to a speedy trial, the common-law right to a unanimous verdict dates back to the Magna Carta.

And like the prohibition against double jeopardy, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a speedy trial, “every state incorporates some form” of the right to a unanimous verdict.

Indeed, 49 of the 50 states now require a unanimous verdict to convict an accused of any crime, while Oregon only requires a unanimous verdict to convict persons accused of first-degree murder.

Case History

August 09, 2019 • Rutherford Institute Calls on U.S. Supreme Court to Hold States to Sixth Amendment Standard of a Unanimous Jury Verdict in Criminal Cases

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Ramos v. State of Louisiana

The Rutherford Institute’s brief in Ramos v. State of Louisiana

Article posted with permission from John Whitehead

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