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Nonunanimous jury verdicts can be appealed in Oregon

Now only Louisiana allows for split jury verdicts in criminal cases — a practice that stems from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws in the early 20th century.

SALEM, Ore. (CN) — The Oregon Supreme Court effectively revived hundreds of criminal cases Friday, ruling that jury verdicts that were not unanimous can be appealed.

The ruling in Watkins v. Ackley follows four years of legal action taken by the Oregon Department of Justice to end the state’s practice of nonunanimous jury verdicts — leaving Louisiana as the only state allow them — and came with a heavy history lesson from concurring Justice Richard Baldwin, who did not mince words when it came to labeling the practice as an exclusionary law.

The law in question dates back to 1934 when Oregon voters approved a ballot measure that allowed for nonunanimous jury verdicts of 10-2 or 11-1 in most criminal cases.

“’Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule permitting nonunanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute ‘the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.’ In fact, no one before us contests any of this; courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their states’ respective nonunanimity rules,’” the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in its 2020 consideration of why Louisiana and Oregon adopted such laws in the case Ramos v. Louisiana.

Ramos led the Supreme Court to hold that under the U.S. Constitution, a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial includes the right to a unanimous jury verdict. But the ruling left some questions unanswered, including whether it was retroactive to nonunanimous convictions that occurred before before April 2020.

A month later, in Edwards v. Vannoy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under federal law, the right to a unanimous jury for serious criminal offenses only applied to cases after Ramos and those currently on appeal. However, Edwards clarified that states could apply Ramos retroactively under their own laws, leading Oregon to ask a state court of appeals to certify three cases to the Oregon Supreme Court.

In Friday's ruling, Justice Baldwin wrote the 1930s measure has caused “immeasurably great harm to the citizens of this state, while largely evading legal challenge.”

“That wholesale denial of equal treatment under the law and the denial of full participation of some in our jury system are distinct features of second-class citizenship. While Oregon did not approve nonunanimous juries as part of a brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against Black Americans, its own voters — consistent with this state’s long and foundational history of bigotry and Black exclusion laws — approved nonunanimous juries as a means of excluding nonwhites from meaningful participation in our justice system,” Baldwin wrote.

He added: “I agree that applying Ramos only prospectively is not sufficient. We should also apply the constitutional rule of Ramos to petitioner and others similarly situated. I concur in the majority opinion and in the judgment of this court.”

What happens next is to be determined. Friday's ruling does not release prisoners, but rather allows their cases to be reconsidered.

“It has been a long and winding road to get here,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement. “I am very grateful to both of our state appellate courts for expediting this important issue of retroactivity of the Ramos ruling. It was a critical piece of this complex process of undoing a rule that should never have been enacted in the first place — now nearly 90 years ago. I stand committed to eradicating inequities and ensuring fairness and impartiality in the delivery of justice in our state.”

Also, as pointed out by Willamette Week, Watkins v. Ackley specifically involves the petitioner Jacob Keith Watkins, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sex crimes with a minor in 2011.

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