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Does the Recent Supreme Court Decision on Unanimous Jury Verdicts Apply to You?

On April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Ramos v. Louisiana. The petitioner in the case, Evangelisto Ramos, was convicted of second-degree murder by a jury that was divided 10-2. On a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court reversed Ramos’ conviction, holding that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict a defendant of any “serious offense.”

The holding in Ramos, of course, is not at all groundbreaking or controversial. Even before Ramos was decided, most states and the federal government required unanimous jury verdicts to convict a defendant of a serious crime. California requires unanimous jury verdicts to convict a defendant of any crime, except an infraction (i.e., a minor offense in which there is no right to a trial by jury). And even the members of the Ramos court who were in dissent were not of the view that allowing conviction of any defendant on a nonunanimous jury verdict is prudent policy. Instead, the discussion in the opinions in Ramos – 84 pages of opinions – primarily revolved around three subjects: (1) why some states endorsed nonunanimous jury verdicts in the first place (i.e., “to establish the supremacy of the white race”); (2) to what extent the Sixth Amendment, which originally applied only to the federal government, is “incorporated” through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore binding on states; and (3) stare decisis – specifically, whether the Court’s 1972 decision in Apodaca v. Oregon, which also addressed the issue of nonunanimous jury verdicts, should be overruled.

What is most controversial about the Ramos decision is not what it actually decided; it is what it left undecided – and this is why even in states like California, which (as noted) already requires unanimous jury verdicts to convict, Ramos bears relevance.

Chief among Ramos’ unanswered questions is whether it is retroactively applicable to cases that are already final.

Generally, the Supreme Court is loathe to allow retroactive application of new rules of criminal procedure. However, the Court has left open the possibility that a newly recognized “watershed” rule could be retroactive. What is a “watershed” rule insofar as criminal procedure is concerned? It is a rule that “implicates the fundamental fairness of the trial.”

Recognizing the “crushing burden” that the retroactive application of Ramos could have, Justice Brett Kavanaugh (who concurred in the Court’s core holding that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts) wrote in his concurring opinion that Ramos’ core holding is not a “watershed” rule. Justice Neil Gorsuch (who wrote the lead opinion) and dissenting Justice Samuel Alito effectively countered this argument by noting that the issue of Ramos’ retroactivity has not yet been presented to the Court.

In our view, Ramos paves the way for potentially thousands of defendants convicted by divided jury verdicts to obtain post-conviction relief. Central to our view is that Ramos announced a watershed rule of criminal procedure. Indeed, if a holding that the Sixth Amendment requires juror unanimity does not “implicate the fundamental fairness of the trial” process, it is difficult to imagine any other rule that could possibly do so.

Ramos’ Applicability in California

California has long required unanimous jury verdicts for conviction even in misdemeanor cases. However, there are California residents who have been convicted of serious offenses in other states that, at the time of conviction, did not require juror unanimity. These residents include persons who cannot hold certain jobs in California because of out-of-state convictions, persons who were convicted of a sex offense in another state, and now (because they live in California) are required to register on the California sex offender registry, and others.

Are you one of these residents?

Explore your post-conviction options by contacting the Coimbra Law Firm today!