On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Calls on U.S. Supreme Court to Hold States to Sixth Amendment Standard of a Unanimous Jury Verdict in Criminal Cases
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pushing back against the idea that the application of fundamental constitutional rights is dependent on what state you live in, The Rutherford Institute is calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent the states from “watering down” the rights of criminal defendants.
In an amicus brief filed in Ramos v. State of Louisiana, attorneys with The Rutherford Institute have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to make the requirement of a unanimous jury in criminal cases—a right dating back to the Magna Carta—uniform throughout the United States. The brief asserts that the Bill of Rights, specifically the Sixth Amendment, requires unanimous jury verdicts at the federal level, a judicial standard which should apply at the state level, also. The case arose after a Louisiana man, Evangelisto Ramos, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison based on circumstantial evidence that failed to convince two of his 12 jurors that he was guilty. At the time, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases.
Affiliate attorneys Michael J. Lockerby, David A. Hickerson, Jay N. Varon and Heather A. Lee of Foley & Lardner in Washington, D.C., assisted The Rutherford Institute in presenting its arguments.
“Justice should not be contingent on where one lives,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The right to a unanimous jury verdict is firmly rooted in America’s history, tradition, and conscience.”
The case arose after Evangelisto Ramos was charged with murder, based on circumstantial evidence, for the stabbing death of a prostitute, Trinece Fedison. Although two members of the 12-member jury believed the state had not proven that Ramos committed the murder, Ramos was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole because the Louisiana law in effect at the time allowed a conviction based on a non-unanimous jury verdict. In 2018, Louisiana’s voters amended the State Constitution to require unanimity, though only for crimes committed after 2018.
In weighing in on Ramos v. State of Louisiana, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a unanimous verdict is a fundamental right fully applicable to the states. The Sixth Amendment provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The right to a trial by jury guarantees that an accused will be convicted only when all jurors, the only impartial persons who have the benefit of all of the evidence for and against guilt, conclude that the accused is guilty.
Unanimity in jury verdicts is required where the Sixth and Seventh Amendments apply. In criminal cases this requirement of unanimity extends to all issues— character or degree of the crime, guilt and punishment—which are left to the jury. The Supreme Court has recognized this unanimity requirement “virtually without dissent” since the 1800s. Like the right to a jury trial and the right to a speedy trial, the common-law right to a unanimous verdict dates back to the Magna Carta. And like the prohibition against double jeopardy, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a speedy trial, “every state incorporates some form” of the right to a unanimous verdict. Indeed, 49 of the 50 states now require a unanimous verdict to convict an accused of any crime, while Oregon only requires a unanimous verdict to convict persons accused of first-degree murder. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Ramos v. Louisiana on the first day of their new term on Oct. 7, 2019.