Andrew McCarthy: Supreme Court upholds unanimous jury verdicts — here's why it matters

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The Supreme Court has managed to transform a very straightforward issue into something quite complex. Don’t blame the current justices, though. On the issue in question, the right to have criminal cases decided by a unanimous jury, this is not the court’s first rodeo.

In Monday’s decision, Ramos v. Louisiana, the court correctly ruled (a) that the right to a jury trial, which is specified in Article III, Section 2, and yet again in the Sixth Amendment, includes the right to a unanimous verdict and (b) that this federal constitutional right applies to the states.

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The case centers on Evangelisto Ramos, who stood to spend the rest of his life in prison for a serious crime on which he was convicted at a state trial in Louisiana by a jury whose verdict was 10–2 against him. That would not be good enough to convict him in 48 states or federal court, which require unanimous verdicts. But two states, Louisiana and Oregon, have permitted non-unanimity since shortly before the end of the 19th century.

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These two states are lonely outliers from the centuries-long understanding of what a jury trial is. The reprehensible rationale for their diversion, at least originally, was racial prejudice. In the legacy of Jim Crow, Louisiana was attempting to water down Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments and civil-rights legislation that ensured the fundamental rights of African-Americans to serve on juries. Oregon, similarly, was attempting to dilute the influence of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

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Louisiana and Oregon have long since renounced the racist underpinnings of their non-unanimity rule. Yet they nonetheless retained it on less noxious but still ill-conceived reasoning: the theory that non-unanimity discourages hung juries, which waste resources, since cases then have to be retried. Besides ignoring that a unanimous jury is a fundamental right, this theory proceeds on two faulty assumptions: (1) Hung juries are worse than wrongful convictions or acquittals and (2) permitting non-unanimous verdicts makes hung juries less likely — to the contrary; it undermines the spirit of open-minded deliberation that encourages juries to arrive at a consensus.

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