SCOTUS Ruling: Criminal Defendants in State Jury Trials Have the Right to Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous verdict in criminal trials applies to both federal and state trials.

Up until this ruling, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed criminals defendants to be convicted by non-unanimous (10-to-2 or 11-to-1) verdicts. The other 48 states and the federal government all require unanimous verdicts. In Ramos v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court decided a conviction for a serious crime in state court requires a unanimous jury verdict under the Sixth Amendment.

In Ramos, the defendant received a life sentence without parole based on a 10-to-2 jury verdict. He challenged his conviction as unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment, arguing the verdict needed to be unanimous to convict. The Supreme Court agreed. Justice Gorsuch even called out Louisiana and Oregon's less-than-unanimous jury verdict laws as "something we all know to be wrong." And the justice took time to delve into the laws' "racist origins," which courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have acknowledged. Indeed, both laws can be traced back to efforts (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) to make sure that jury service by African-Americans would be meaningless—basically, by dismissing their one or two votes.

The decision rejects a previous Supreme Court ruling decided in 1972—Apodaca v. Oregon, 406 U.S 404. Apodaca resulted in a very split decision upholding the use of less-than-unanimous jury verdicts in state trials for cases not involving the death penalty. The Apodaca decision was so fractured that the justices in the current case couldn't agree on its reliance as precedent—that is, should other courts rely on it as legal authority.

At least now one thing is clear—going forward, a jury in a state criminal trial cannot convict someone of a serious crime unless the verdict is unanimous.

Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020).

Decided: April 20, 2020.

In a 2021 opinion, a divided Supreme Court (6 to 3, split along ideological lines) ruled that Ramos won't apply retroactively to inmates whose direct appeals ran out before the decision was handed down. This ruling means some inmates with convictions based on less-than-unanimous verdicts will have an opportunity to challenge their convictions and others will not. Those inmates who have exhausted their direct appeals (to challenge trial errors) and are now seeking collateral appeals (basically, an appeal of last resort challenging the legality of the conviction or sentence) won't have any recourse under Ramos.

Edwards v. Vannoy, 593 U.S. ___ (2021).

Decided: May 17, 2021.