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Supreme Court Decides Unanimous Verdicts Are Required To Convict For Serious Crimes


The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a Louisiana law that allows accused criminals to be convicted of serious crimes without a unanimous vote of the jury. The 6-3 decision overturned a 1972 ruling, which had upheld such verdicts. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The decision is a victory for Evangelisto Ramos, convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder by a jury vote of 10-2 in Louisiana. Only two states, Louisiana and Oregon, have such provisions, and Louisiana has recently changed its law to be like those in the 48 other states and the federal government. Nonetheless, there will be consequences in both states. The court's decision will require retrials for any prisoner who still has a live appeal pending. Jamila Johnson is the managing attorney at the Promise of Justice Initiative in Louisiana, which represented Ramos.

JAMILA JOHNSON: Presently, there are less than a hundred cases that are on direct appeal in which this decision would automatically create a new trial for. But there are also at least 1,700 cases in the state of Louisiana where people are presently in prison who may have an argument to make for the retroactive application of the Ramos case.

TOTENBERG: As for those 1,700, the Supreme Court left open the question of whether they have the right to a retrial; in short, whether today's decision will ultimately apply retroactively. There never has been any dispute that the unanimous jury requirement applies to the federal government. The question here was whether that aspect of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial applied to the states as well.

Over the last 75 years or so, the court has applied just about every other aspect of the Bill of Rights to the states. But in 1972, it deviated from that practice, declining to apply the unanimous jury requirement. Today a six-justice Supreme Court majority, composed of conservatives and liberals, said that earlier ruling was a mistake. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that not a single member of this court is prepared to say that the court's decision in 1972 was correct. Rather, he said, the dissenters maintain that the principle of adhering to precedent should be followed here because to do otherwise would require large numbers of new trials for people imprisoned under the old rule.

But where is the justice in that, Gorsuch asked. Every judge must learn to live with the fact that he or she will make some mistakes. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate a wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right. The majority, concurring and dissenting opinions reflected an important subtext - divergent views about when the court should follow its usual rule of adhering to precedent and when it should not. It's an important subtext because the new conservative court majority has very different views than the courts of the last century on topics from abortion to federal regulation to voting rights and even religious rights.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.