SCOTUS exterior, 11/2/19 credit Jessica Rosgaard
U.S. Supreme Court (Jessica Rosgaard/The Lens)

The United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday that their previous finding that non-unanimous jury verdicts violate the US Constitution does not apply to cases in which defendants have exhausted their appeals — leaving the fates of around 1,500 people in Louisiana who are still in prison on non-unanimous verdicts uncertain. 

In the ruling Monday in Edwards v. Vannoy, a 6-3 majority found that their decision last year — which found that split-jury verdicts were “one pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans, especially in voting and jury service,” and were unconstitutional — should not be applied retroactively. 

The decision means that federal courts will not mandate that prisoners who were convicted on non-unanimous verdicts who have exhausted their state appeals receive new trials. Instead, those individuals must turn to state courts, the state legislature, and district attorneys’ offices across Louisiana in hopes of relief.

Monday’s decision stemmed from a case out of Baton Rouge. Thedrick Edwards was convicted by a split-jury verdict in 2006 of several counts of armed robbery, aggravated rape, and kidnapping. He was seeking to have that verdict overturned based on the prior decision. 

But in its decision on Monday, the Court determined that their decision last year in Ramos v. Louisiana to mandate unanimous jury convictions constituted a new procedural rule, but that rule did not rise to the level of a “watershed” change that necessitates retroactive application. 

Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that applying the decision retroactively and mandating new trials for everyone convicted on a non-unanimous verdict would be too burdensome for states to manage.

“When previously convicted perpetrators of violent crimes go free merely because the evidence needed to conduct a retrial has become stale or is no longer available, the public suffers, as do the victims,” he wrote. “Even when the evidence can be reassembled, conducting retrials years later inflicts substantial pain on crime victims who must testify again and endure new trials. In this case, the victims of the robberies, kidnappings, and rapes would have to relive their trauma and testify again, 15 years after the crimes occurred.” 

Kavanaugh concluded that the costs of retroactive applicability outweighed the benefits.

The court’s three liberal justices — Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer — dissented from the majority. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan argued that the court’s decision in Ramos was in fact a “watershed” ruling, and the fact that a person had exhausted their appeals did not make their conviction any more legitimate.

“A decision like that comes with a promise, or at any rate should,” she wrote of the Court’s previous decision in Ramos. “If the right to a unanimous jury is so fundamental—if a verdict rendered by a divided jury is ‘no verdict at all’—then Thedrick Edwards should not spend his life behind bars over two jurors’ opposition.” 

“The result of today’s ruling is easily stated. Ramos will not apply retroactively, meaning that a prisoner whose appeals ran out before the decision can receive no aid from the change in law it made. So Thedrick Edwards, unlike Evangelisto Ramos, will serve the rest of his life in prison based on a 10-to-2 jury verdict.”

Further changes now in hands of state courts, La. Legislature, local prosecutors

Edwards and the 1,500 people behind bars on split-jury verdicts were convicted in state courts, not federal courts, which did not allow non-unanimous verdicts. And the state of Louisiana still has the opportunity to make its own determination about whether or not to apply the Ramos decision retroactively. 

“The Ramos rule does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review,” Kavanaugh wrote in a footnote of his decision. “States remain free, if they choose, to retroactively apply the jury unanimity rule as a matter of state law in state post-conviction proceedings.”

The practice of non-unanimous jury verdicts in Louisiana stems from a 1898 Constitutional Convention that was intended, according to one delegate, to “establish the supremacy of the white race.” And legal scholars have argued that the practice was intended to silence the votes of Black jurors in order to more easily convict Black defendants. Louisiana is one of only two states that allowed the practice — the other being Oregon, which adopted it in 1934. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, also allowed them.

In 2018, following a Pulitzer-prize winning series by The Advocate that analyzed the racially disparate impacts of non-unanimous verdicts, voters in the state passed a constitutional amendment mandating unanimous jury verdicts. But that change only applied to cases started in 2019 or later. Then, last year, in Ramos v. Louisiana the United States Supreme Court ruled non-unanimous jury verdicts unconstitutional. That ruling only applied to individuals who had not exhausted their direct appeals. 

The Court’s ruling on Monday means that the decision whether or not to provide relief to those 1,500 will need to be worked out at the state level. 

In the Louisiana State Legislature, a bill was heard last week in the House Committee on the Judiciary that would change state law in order to allow new trials or a shot at parole for people in prison on non-unanimous jury verdicts. At the hearing, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randall Gaines, Democrat of LaPlace, deferred the bill pending the court’s decision in Edwards.

Last week, Gaines had suggested that the bill would only move forward if the court ruled that Ramos should be applied retroactively. But reached on Monday, after the court’s decision, Gaines said he was planning to bring the bill up again at the Judiciary committee this Thursday and would push for it’s favorable passage. 

“I’m gonna take immediate action to try to get the bill passed,” Gaines said. “Because now it’s the only option that anyone who may have been unjustly convicted has.”

In a press release on Monday, Jamila Johnson, Managing Attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project at The Promise of Justice Initiative, pushed lawmakers to pass Gaines’ bill. 

“Today’s decision underscores the urgent need for state lawmakers to act swiftly to pass House Bill 346 and create a predictable, orderly path to justice for the more than 1,500 Louisianans who are spending the majority of their lives in prison due to verdicts that today, or at any time in 48 other states, would have resulted in new trials,” Johnson said. “The voters of Louisiana spoke loud and clear in support of dismantling this relic of Jim Crow, and now their representatives have an obligation to finish the job of restoring justice and repairing the harm this practice inflicted.” 

The Louisiana Supreme Court could also decide to apply the ban on non-unanimous jury verdicts retroactively throughout the state. That’s what former chief justice of the court, Bernette Johnson, has suggested they should do. In a dissent written last June, she argued that it “is time that our state courts—not the United States Supreme Court—decided whether we should address the damage done by our longtime use of an invidious law.” 

“There are some rules of procedure untethered to our history of discrimination against African Americans where the question of retroactive application may carry less weight,” Johnson wrote. “But this was an intentionally racially discriminatory law that has disproportionately affected Black defendants and Black jurors. There is no principled or moral justification for differentiating between the remedy for a prisoner convicted by that law whose case is on direct review and one whose conviction is final. Both are equally the product of a racist and unconstitutional law.”

Meanwhile, individual district attorneys throughout the state have the discretion to review and vacate non-unanimous jury convictions that came out of the parishes they represent. But so far only one in the state — recently elected Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams — has decided to make that effort. Since taking office in January, he has vacated 22 of the over 300 convictions out of Orleans Parish of individuals who are still serving prison sentences on  non-unanimous jury verdicts.

In a press release on Monday following the Supreme Court decision, Williams said that his office would continue to review split-jury verdicts out of New Orleans.

“We made a commitment to correct the sins of the past to build trust in our city,” the statement read. “We will continue to address cases of people who were discriminated against using a law created to silence the votes of jurors of color.”

Williams has also said that he has shared his approach to addressing non-unanimous verdicts in Orleans Parish with the Louisiana District Attorneys Association in hopes of spurring similar action around the state. 

“This ruling does not change a District Attorney’s responsibility and discretion to confront the presence of unfairness in the criminal legal system,” Williams said.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...