- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2020

The Supreme Court ruled Monday a man was railroaded by Louisiana’s criminal justice system, having been sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole by a divided jury.

Evangelisto Ramos was found guilty of second-degree murder by a 10-2 vote. Traditionally, 48 states require a unanimous verdict to convict, so Ramos would have had a mistrial had his proceedings been held elsewhere. But in Louisiana and Oregon that has not been the case, so he was sentenced to life behind bars.

Overturning years of precedent, the high court ruled a jury verdict must be unanimous, siding with Ramos.

“The text and structure of the Constitution clearly suggest that the term ‘trial by an impartial jury’ carried with it some meaning about the content and requirements of a jury trial. One of these requirements was unanimity,” Justice

Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the court in a divided opinion.

He was joined in part by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett M. Kavanaugh. Justice Clarence Thomas also concurred with the court’s judgment.

But Justice Samuel A. Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented, arguing the court’s ruling would overturn a 1972 case where the court held the Sixth Amendment permitted non-unanimous verdicts in state criminal cases.

“Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority casts aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered,” the dissent argued.

Justice Elena Kagan joined the dissent in part.

But Justice Gorsuch fired back at his dissenting colleagues, saying the court must stand up for what is right despite the consequences of overruling earlier cases and the fall out from this decision.

“Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right,” he wrote.

Ramos’ case is remanded back to the lower court for further proceedings.
In his 2016 trial, 10 jurors thought he was guilty of second-degree murder. But two jurors said the state had not proved his guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

Due to Louisiana not requiring a unanimous verdict at the time, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Since his original jury verdict, Louisiana has amended its constitution to require unanimous verdict, via a voter referendum in 2018.

Oregon is the only state to still allow the non-unanimous convictions, according to the Promise of Justice Initiative, a criminal justice-focused nonprofit group in New Orleans. The group has been challenging non-unanimous verdicts since 2004 and represented Ramos.

“We are heartened that the Court has held, once and for all, that the promise of the Sixth Amendment fully applies in Louisiana, rejecting any concept of second-class justice,” said Ben Cohen, counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative.

Progressive legal advocates also cheered the ruling.

“At long last, the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that convictions by juries in major criminal cases require unanimous verdicts now applies in state courts, not just federal courts,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. “While long overdue, this is a victory for our Constitution’s text, history, and values.”

In the 26-page opinion, Justice Gorsuch detailed how Louisiana and Oregon were motivated by bias against black jurors, linking the non-unanimous jury verdicts to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Justice Gorsuch noted that unanimous juries had long been the standard in England, as well as the early American states.

“State courts appeared to regard unanimity as an essential feature of the jury trial. It was against this backdrop that James Madison drafted and the States ratified the Sixth Amendment in 1791. By that time, unanimous verdicts had been required for about 400 years,” wrote Justice Gorsuch.

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