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US Supreme Court Ruling Ends Oregon's Non-unanimous Jury Verdicts

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Claire Anderson via Unsplash
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts in state criminal courts. The move ends Oregon’s history of using non-unanimous juries to find people guilty of crimes other than murder.

Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the 14th Amendment incorporates a person’s Sixth Amendment right to jury unanimity.

Oregon was the last state in the country that utilized a non-unanimous jury law, allowing convictions in many types of cases with an 11-1 or 10-2 decision.

Monday's Supreme Court case was out of Louisiana, though that state had previously ended the practice of non-unanimous juries through a measure approved by voters.

Non-unanimous juries have been part of Oregon’s Constitution since 1934, when voters adopted the practice. Legal scholars argue non-unanimous juries are rooted in discrimination, and that Oregon's law was originally intended to silence the voices of Catholic and Jewish immigrants in the state.

In Louisiana, the law was directly tied to Jim Crow laws and aimed to make it easier to convict black defendants so white landowners could maintain a cheap, post-slavery labor force. In November 2018, Louisiana voters scrubbed non-unanimous juries from their state’s Constitution. But that didn’t prevent the Supreme Court from agreeing to hear a case that directly dealt with the issue of non-unanimous juries.

In recent years in Oregon, there’s been a growing recognition about the state’s racist and discriminatory past, as well as an understanding among many state lawmakers and elected officials – even the state’s district attorneys – that there should be no doubt among jurors when convicting a defendant of a crime.

However, Oregon legal experts have disagreed on how best to adopt unanimous juries without overturning many past convictions.

This article will be updated. 

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.