Supreme Court Considers Allowing Decision to Strike Down Racist Jury Laws to be Applied Retroactively

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More than seven months after ruling that laws that allow felony convictions based on non-unanimous juries were unconstitutional, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether its decision should be applied retroactively. Only two states, Louisiana and Oregon, allow people to be imprisoned on non-unanimous jury convictions.

In April, the Supreme Court heard a case filed by Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted of murder in Louisiana for a 2014 killing by a 10-2 jury vote. Voters in Louisiana struck down the state’s split jury system in 2018.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the 6-3 majority opinion that these laws in Louisiana effectively made juror service by Black Louisianians “meaningless,” CBS News reported. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that the laws emerged as “a pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans.”

The court’s ruling allowed defendants convicted by a non-unanimous jury with appeals still pending the right to a new trial. Now the Supreme Court is considering whether its decision should be applied retroactively. Its decision could affect thousands of convictions.

What is Edwards v. Louisiana?

On Dec. 2, justices heard arguments in Edwards v. Louisiana, a case filed by Thedrick Edwards. He was indicted on charges including armed robbery, rape and kidnapping in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Edwards, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole despite the sole Black juror voting to acquit him.

In 2011, Edwards’ convictions became final and his effort to seek post-conviction relief in Louisiana state courts failed, SCOTUSblog reported. Less than two months before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Ramos case, Edwards filed his petition seeking judicial review by the Supreme Court. That petition was granted in May 2020.

Edwards argues that the Ramos case applies retroactively because it did not establish a new rule. Even if it had, he contends that the Ramos decision created a watershed rule of criminal procedure, according to SCOTUSblog.

Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at the Promise of Justice Initiative in Louisiana, told CBS News that the group is identifying convictions that could be challenged if Edwards is successful. Groups in Oregon are doing the same.

What Do Louisiana and Oregon Argue?

For their part, both states are arguing against having the Ramos ruling apply retroactively. Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill said in a statement that the new case before the Supreme Court “is not about whether unanimity is a good policy.” Murrill said that instead, the case is about how to apply the new rules to long settled criminal cases.

In the statement, Murrill said the Supreme Court’s decision in the Edwards case “could jeopardize thousands of long-final rape, murder, child molestation, and other violent crime convictions.”

Meanwhile, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum brought up the same concerns in a statement to CBS News. Rosenblum said she welcomes the end of non-unanimous jury verdicts but noted that a retroactive application could potentially impact thousands of convictions.

“As a practical matter, retrying this older category of cases would be challenging and in some cases impossible, given the need for testimony and evidence from cases that were tried years –– or even decades –– ago,” she wrote.

History of Racism in Non-Unanimous Jury Laws

The non-unanimous jury system in Louisiana traces its racist roots to the 1898 state constitutional convention, according to the New Orleans Advocate. During the Reconstruction-era convention, Louisiana lawmakers sought to disenfranchise previously enslaved Black people.

In 1974, a law required 10 votes out of 12 for a conviction instead of the nine required by the 1898 constitution, the New Orleans Advocate reported.

A report released in November by The Promise of Justice Initiative revealed that the impacts of those laws are still being felt today. According to the report, 80 percent of people still imprisoned due to these Jim Crow jury laws are Black. Most of those people are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

“The non-unanimous jury rule was created by white supremacists to oppress and imprison Black people, and that was exactly their results,” Johnson said of the report. “Jim Crow juries are a stain on our criminal legal system that continues to destroy lives and keep families apart. We will not stand by while people who were denied fair trials by a racist and unconstitutional practice continue to languish behind bars.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.