Editor's note: This is columnist James Manahan's 150th "Legal Learning" column.
We all know that in a felony criminal case all 12 jurors must agree on a verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty," right? Many of us remember the wonderful movie “12 Angry Men," where the juror played by Henry Fonda is the only one to vote "not guilty," but by the end of the movie, all 12 jurors agree that the defendant is innocent.
But it’s not so simple. The 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in criminal cases. The Supreme Court ruled back in 1898 that “jury trial” means what it meant in England (the common law) – that is, 12 persons who must reach a unanimous verdict.
However, in 1972, the court decided that this requirement is not incorporated into the 14th Amendment and does not apply to the states. Four dissenting judges thought that omitting the unanimity requirement would undermine the reasonable doubt standard, would permit a majority of jurors simply to ignore those interpreting the facts differently, and would permit oppression of dissenting minorities.
The five-man majority of the court ruled, however, that states are free to permit non-unanimous jury verdicts. Unanimity, they said, is not required for “proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Oregon is now the only state that still permits convictions on a 10-2 or 11-1 vote of the jury. They adopted this system in 1934 after the high-profile trial of Jacob Silverman for the murder of James Walker. One of the jurors held out for “not guilty” and the jury returned a compromise verdict of manslaughter.
Silverman was sentenced to just three years in prison. The Legislature introduced a constitutional amendment within six months of the verdict, and it quickly passed. Many people thought that anti-Jewish sentiment led to the adoption of the non-unanimous jury amendment.
Until last fall, Louisiana also permitted non-unanimous verdicts. In 2016, Evangelisto Ramos was convicted of murder for the death of Trinece Fedison, whose body was found in a trash can in New Orleans. Only 10 of the 12 jurors voted to find him guilty, but he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Mr. Ramos has appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, and his case will be argued this fall. In the meantime, however, the voters in Louisiana last November abolished the non-unanimous option. Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in the Ramos case, all future verdicts in Louisiana will have to be unanimous
In 2017, Olan Jermaine Williams was convicted of sodomy in Oregon by a jury vote of 10-2. Mr. Williams is African-American, and the only black man on the jury was one of the two dissenters. His attorney is arguing on appeal that the Oregon law “basically denies a voice to that minority juror, there’s an equal protection problem.”
Now the Oregon Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment that would require a unanimous jury for a conviction. The Oregon District Attorneys Association has come out in favor of the change, but it must first be approved by the voters in a referendum.
Opponents argue that the change would result in more hung juries, more retrials, and more trauma to crime victims who would have to testify again.
The American Bar Association has passed a resolution urging all states to require unanimous juries. The resolution argued that non-unanimous juries raise the chances of wrongful convictions. In fact, there is evidence to support that belief.
According to the Innocence Project, 13 of the 57 Louisianans who have been exonerated were convicted by non-unanimous verdicts.
In Minnesota the law requires unanimous verdicts in felony cases. Let’s keep it that way.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com or jamesmanahan.com.