The Supreme Court decided earlier this week that it would not hear a case about whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial includes a condition that the juries reach their verdicts unanimously.
The issue arose because two states, Louisiana and Oregon, allow criminal convictions with less-than-unanimous verdicts. Defendants in both states can be found guilty of a crime if jurors split 11-1 or 10-2. Every other state and the federal government require that jurors reach a unanimous verdict.
Lawyers in Louisiana have long argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should hear the case given that they claim the rule is a product of Jim Crow-era laws that were put in place to marginalize the role of African-Americans in the legal system. Advocates for change insist that the racial impact of the law is still being seen today. In Jefferson Parish, prospective black jurors are challenged at more than three times the rate of prospective white jurors. Given this imbalance, and the state’s non-unanimous system, a full 80% of guilty verdicts in Jefferson parish are able to be decided without any black votes in favor of conviction.
Those attorneys arguing that the Court agree to hear the case further claimed that the less-than-unanimous system reduces jury reliability. They pointed out that Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, where the case at issue originated, has the fourth highest rate of wrongful jury convictions in the country. Adjacent Orleans Parish has the highest rate.
The case at issue involves Corey Miller, a rapper from New Orleans who was convicted of second-degree murder back in 2002 after a nightclub shooting killed a 16-year-old. The crime scene was chaotic and testimony during trial was conflicted. Miller was tried and convicted with a vote of 10-2. As a result of his conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole.
The issue of non-unanimous jury verdicts was considered by the Supreme Court once before, in 1972. In that case, the court split 4-4 until Justice Powell broke the tie, coming down in support of non-unanimous verdicts. At the time, more than 40 years ago, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states with such systems. Today, the two states remain alone. This legal isolation is what has prompted many to insist the systems are backwards and in need of modernization.
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)