The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t specifically grant criminal defendants the right to a unanimous jury, but the protection is so fundamental to justice that it is assumed. This is according to a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court led by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
You may be surprised to learn that jury unanimity was still a question in the year 2020, but two states have traditionally allowed criminal convictions based on a majority of jurors. Those states are Louisiana and Oregon and, in both states, there is substantial evidence that allowing non-unanimous juries was done to promote an anti-minority agenda.
Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the racist origins of non-unanimous juries were something that needed to be considered in this case even though the appellant had not directly asked for such a review.
In the time since Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder in Louisiana by a 10-2 jury, Louisiana has changed its law to require a unanimous jury. However, that change in the law does not apply retroactively, leaving people like Ramos convicted without the full protection of their constitutional rights. Now, courts will need to release those who were convicted of a serious crime by a non-unanimous jury.
Some of those people, like Ramos, had been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Others are on death row. All of their cases will have to be reconsidered.
In defense of its previous non-unanimous jury rule, Louisiana made several arguments. It said that the framers had ultimately decided to leave the requirement for a unanimous jury out of the constitution. It argued that, although there are some unstated mandates in the Sixth Amendment, the right to a unanimous jury is not important enough to be considered one of them.
“When the American people chose to enshrine that right in the Constitution,” wrote Gorsuch, “they weren’t suggesting fruitful topics for future cost-benefit analyses. They were seeking to ensure that their children’s children would enjoy the same hard-won liberty they enjoyed.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Promise of Justice Institute, which represented Ramos, said that the Supreme Court had finally “reckoned with the largest standing monument to the confederacy with this historic ruling” and added that the decision offers “the promise of healing for our state.”