Should unanimous jury law apply to prior convictions?
Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 5, 2020
BATON ROUGE — In November 2018, Louisiana voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution mandating a unanimous agreement of jurors to convict individuals charged with felonies.
The new law went into effect in January 2019, but the United States Supreme Court now must weigh in on whether the unanimous jury requirement should be retroactive for individuals convicted under the previous system. It’s a crucial decision, especially since advocates estimate at least 1,600 inmates in Louisiana prisons were convicted without unanimous juries.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld the unanimous jury requirement as a Sixth Amendment right in all criminal trials during the Ramos v. Louisiana case.
On Dec. 2, Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murril argued in opposition of retroactively applying the law in Edwards v. Vannoy, an ongoing case that calls into question how new rules of criminal procedure should be applied to settled cases.
Murril said the Edwards v. Vannoy case is not debating whether unanimity is a good policy.
“Louisiana voters agreed that it is and embraced this policy in criminal prosecutions that arose after January 1, 2019,” Murril said. “But for nearly 50 years – Louisiana, Oregon and Puerto Rico expressly relied on Supreme Court precedent approving the use of non-unanimous jury verdicts in state criminal cases. If Ramos were to be applied retroactively, thousands of long-final convictions – whose crimes each have victims – would be unsettled.”
In a recent press release, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said the decision could “jeopardize thousands of long-final rape, murder, child molestation and other violent crime convictions.”
The Supreme Court decision could have implications for non-unanimous verdicts in criminal matters that were decided in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Richard B. Stricks, district public defender for the 40th Judicial District Court, said it was very common to see non-unanimous convictions locally, except in cases such as homicides where unanimity was required.
“We had public defenders requesting the judges to allow convictions only on unanimous verdict. The judges were denying it. Those cases were brought up on appeal, and they’re coming back. We have cases in St. John that are going to have to be re-tried,” Stricks said.
He maintains that individuals convicted under the previous system should have the right to return to trial.
“Because the basis of the ruling was that there was a discriminatory origin (in the 10-2 rule), I think that anybody who was convicted by a non-unanimous verdict should be entitled to challenge that,” Stricks said. “The reason the 10-2 rule was argued before the Supreme Court was that it was designed to dilute the votes of African American jurors…In light of that, the people who were convicted under such a scheme should be allowed to challenge their convictions, even if they’ve served the time, no matter how long ago it was.”
The St. John Parish District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted countless cases and has offered resources to support the victims of violent crimes.
No matter the ruling, District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut said she is fully committed to upholding the law.
“The district attorney has and will always uphold the Court’s decisions and respect the rules of law, order and procedure,” Dinvaut said. “The Courts have many challenging Constitutional issues to address. We will await the Court’s rulings and comply accordingly.”
In the Edwards v. Vannoy case, defendant Thedrick Edwards was convicted in 2007 of rape, as well as several charges of armed robbery and kidnapping. The jury was split 10 to 2 on most of the robbery charges and 11 to 1 on the other charges in the case. As a result, Edwards was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
For more information on this Supreme Court case, visit https://www.supremecourt.gov/search.aspx?filename=/docket/docketfiles/html/public/19-5807.html.