Supreme Court rules on issue of split jury

While courts’ responses to CoVid-19 vary substantially, the Supreme Court of the United States has continued to hear new cases, and for the first time ever, heard oral arguments by telephone. One such case was Ramos v. Louisiana. The high court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, as incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious crime. At the time of the ruling, only two states allowed a split verdict for conviction.

Pictured is the Supreme Court building in Columbus, Ohio.

Ten to Two

The facts of the case were straightforward. In November 2014, a New Orleans police officer found a woman’s body in a trash can located outside of a church. A witness was interviewed and told police that he had seen a man, Evangelisto Ramos, with the victim the night of the murder. Mr. Ramos worked as an oil-supply boat worker and lived nearby. When brought in for questioning, Mr. Ramos admitted to having consensual sex with the victim on previous occasions, including the night of her murder. 

Mr. Ramos was eventually charged with the crime and the case went to trial. Much of the evidence was circumstantial. The defense did not put on any witnesses, there was no murder weapon found, and no direct eyewitnesses to the incident. There was, however, DNA evidence discovered both on the victim and the handles of the garbage can where her body was later recovered. Mr. Ramos was convicted of murder in Louisiana state court, by a vote of 10 jurors to 2.  Ramos appealed, but his conviction was upheld by a Louisiana appellate court and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied review of his case. 

Race a Motivating Factor

The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether the Fourteenth Amendment fully incorporates the guarantee of a unanimous verdict for serious crimes. Instead of a mistrial with two jurors voting to not convict, Ramos was sentenced to life without parole. In all but two states, a single juror’s vote to acquit is enough to prevent a conviction. Louisiana was the first state in 1898 to allow split verdicts with Oregon following suit in 1934. The law was abolished in 2019 for the state of Louisiana, but up until Monday’s decision, Oregon still allowed conviction for serious felony cases  with a 10-2 or 11-1 vote.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense. Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledged that  “… race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.”. The Supreme Court Judge’s 6-3 vote overturned the conviction of Evangelisto Ramos. And now, the same rules will apply in all 50 states; Juries must be unanimous for conviction.  

This isn’t the first time the case has been in the news. It was featured in an episode of the A & E network’s television series “The First 48”. And, it will likely remain in the spotlight, but for different reasons. Some legal analysts are suggesting that the case was simply about upholding a law with historically racist origin when there is a modern reason to keep it. Others have suggested that this argument covers  judicial precedent and will be utilized as a cornerstone in other major issues ahead on the court’s docket. Either way, Mr. Ramos’ case is reversed and this decision opens the door, at least for some, to raise an argument in their case if they were similarly convicted by a split jury. 

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