Supreme Court Will Hear Challenge to Split Jury Verdicts

The U.S. Supreme Court. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Guilty verdicts from split juries will face a Supreme Court reckoning after the justices agreed Monday to hear an appeal by a Louisiana man sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping, rape and robbery.

A decision by the high court to overturn the verdict could put a stop to split-jury verdicts allowed in just two states: Louisiana and Oregon. 

“Sending someone to jail for life should be hard. But, this obstacle does not seem problematic for 48 other states and the federal government,” according to a petition to the Supreme Court arguing prisoner Thedrick Edwards is entitled to a new trial. 

Ten years into his life sentence, Edwards challenged the high court to consider that the only acquittal vote during his criminal trial came from the sole black juror.

“Was this person’s voice heard?” the petition asks. “Federal jurisprudence prohibits excluding jurors on the basis of race. However, Louisiana’s 10-2 rule can serve to deprive minorities of meaningful participation.”

Noting that prosecutors blocked every other prospective black juror, the filing states with added force: “Bluntly, the state could ‘afford’ to lose her vote and still obtain a conviction.”

The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office opposed the Supreme Court hearing the case, slamming Edwards for both falling short in arguing the merits of his case to an appeals court and for failing to file proper briefs.

“Edwards raises no claim in his petition for certiorari that the Fifth Circuit’s finding of inadequate briefing was incorrect, so even if he has a plausible claim on the merits, the Fifth Circuit was still correct to deny a COA,”  Louisiana Deputy Solicitor General Michelle Ghetti wrote, using the abbreviation for certificate of appealability.  

The state attorney further argued the prisoner waived his claim for an appeal by failing to raise constitutional arguments against nonunanimous juries at trial or on direct appeal following his conviction. 

Citing the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Apodaca v. Oregon, Ghetti said the high court has “undisputedly upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury verdict.”

Edwards’ attorney Andre Belanger did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning on the Supreme Court granting the petition for writ of certiorari. 

“We are glad the court will resolve the issue of retroactivity,” a spokesperson for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office said in response to Monday’s decision.

Per their custom, the justices did not explain their decision to take up the case.

Edwards is serving out his sentence in Louisiana’s largest maximum-security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The prison’s warden, Darrel Vannoy, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing and reinstated earlier this year following an internal investigation into a payroll incident. The previous warden stepped down in 2015 when he was found to be engaged in unethical practices including putting prison employees to work renovating his home.

While Edwards originally filed the petition with Vannoy as the respondent, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office took on the case after the warden waived the right to respond in September.

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