Supreme Court Won’t Overturn Life Sentence That Violates New Jury Rule

A Black Louisiana man had pushed to overturn his life sentence for robbery, kidnapping and rape based on new precedent that says such outcomes require a unanimous jury.

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

WASHINGTON (CN) — A year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences are unconstitutional without jury unanimity on the verdict, the court ruled 6-3 Monday that the precedent does not apply retroactively.

Thedrick Edwards, a Black Louisiana man, was given a life sentence in the underlying case after an 11-1 jury convicted him of armed robbery, kidnapping and rape. The lone juror who voted to acquit Edwards had also been the jury’s only Black member. 

Multiple courts refused to disturb Edward’s sentence, but the Supreme Court agreed to weigh in in December — eight months after it decided in Ramos v. Louisiana that a jury’s verdict must be unanimous to convict someone of a serious crime in state court.

With the majority affirming dismissal Monday, Louisiana Attorney General celebrated the decision as one that follows the guidance of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

“At a time when crime rates are through the sky and attempts to erode law and order are incessant, it is assuring that the Supreme Court upheld the rule of law,” Landry said in a statement.

Landry quoted Scalia as saying that, when a criminal defendant is allowed to relitigate after a full and fair trial with a round of appeals, the process could be an never-ending one.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion Monday, outlining the court’s longstanding practice where a decision announcing a new rule of criminal procedure does not apply retroactively on collateral review. He noted that, in the 32 years since the court decided Teague v. Lane — which says retroactivity “undermines the principle of finality which is essential to the operation of our criminal justice system,” the court has not once applied new rules retroactively.

“A new rule of criminal procedure applies to cases on direct review, even if the defendant’s trial has already concluded,” Kavanaugh wrote. “But under the habeas corpus statute as interpreted by this court, a new rule of criminal procedure ordinarily does not apply retroactively to overturn final convictions on federal collateral review.” (Emphasis in original.) 

Kavanaugh, focusing the majority of his opinion on high court precedent, explained the court already dealt with the issue of applying statue provisions retroactively in the 1965 case Linkletter v. Walker, where the court ruled that an exclusionary rule did not apply retroactively to help Victor Linkletter who was convicted on evidence obtained illegally by police.

Applying Ramos retroactively in this case would have tremendous implications for retrying cases throughout the country, Kavanaugh warned. Scores of resources would be dedicated to retrying cases years after the crimes in question occurred, he wrote, adding some might not qualify for a retrial at all — with possible losses of evidence, witnesses or even mental faculty to relitigate the issue.

“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,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In this case, the victims of the robberies, kidnapping and rapes would have to relive their trauma and testify again, 15 years after the crimes occurred.”

When the Supreme Court decided Ramos last year, it noted that Louisiana and Oregon were the only two states in the country that did not require unanimous verdicts in criminal trials, though they abandoned that practice in 2018 with voter-approved changes to the state constitutions.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas wrote concurring opinions in support of Kavanaugh’s assessment Monday, but the court’s liberal justices dissented. Justice Elena Kagan, with Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joining, emphasized how the court had seen fit in Ramos to overturn a 50-year-old precedent and in doing so vindicate core principles of racial justice.

“For the court’s view, the state laws countenancing non-unanimous verdicts originated in white supremacism and continued in our own time to have racially discriminatory effects,” Kagan wrote. “Put it all together and it is easy to see why the opinions in Ramos read as historic. Rarely does this court make such a fundamental change in the rules thought necessary to ensure fair criminal process.”

Jamila Johnson, managing attorney for the Jim Crow Juries Project, said in a statement that Monday’s ruling failed to address historic wrongs dealt to men and women in Louisiana prisons amid national reckoning with racial injustice.  A bill being considered in Louisiana, House Bill 346, would restore that path for justice for more than 1,500 inmates there who were convicted without unanimous verdicts.

“Current Supreme Court precedent sets an impossibly high threshold for retroactivity and while we disagree with the court on whether the right to a unanimous jury meets that standard — now the obligation falls to state lawmakers to address the continuing injustice of Jim Crow juries,” Johnson said in a statement.

Andre Belanger, who represented Edwards, said similarly that , although he was disappointed by the court’s ruling, inmates still had a path to retrial through state legislation. 

“Louisiana courts can still apply Ramos retroactively as a matter of state law,” Belanger of Manasseh Gill attorney saod in an email. “This is obviously something that will be litigated moving forward. Fortunately, many of the individuals impacted by the Edwards decision today have timely filed post conviction applications in state court to argue this issue.”

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