Since 1934, Oregon’s constitution has allowed any conviction, excluding verdicts of guilty of first degree murder, to be decided by a minimum of 10 out of 12 jurors. In 2020, that changed with the federal Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana.
Oregon was one of two states in the nation, alongside Louisiana, to allow non-unanimous convictions by juries. This precedent was set by Article 1, Section 11 of the state constitution which was adopted in 1934. The law states that as long as at least 10 members of the 12-member jury agreed on a verdict, it would be accepted.
In 1972, this decision was challenged by the case of Apodaca et al. v. Oregon – among several other cases, but the Court of Appeals concluded that “The Sixth Amendment guarantee of a jury trial, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth, does not require that the jury’s vote be unanimous.”
This element of the Oregon constitution has now become exempt because of the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Ramos v. Louisiana, which will supersede state law. As of April 20, 2020, only a unanimous jury can pass a verdict. Otherwise the trial will be considered a mistrial. An example of the consequences of a mistrial would be retrial of a defendant for the charge of manslaughter as opposed to first degree murder.
The law of non-unanimous ruling by juries has origins in the suppression of minority communities, as it silences one to two voices which have different perspectives to the norm within the jury. This origin is outlined in the syllabus of the Ramos v. Louisiana case, available from the Supreme Court’s archives.
In the Opinion of the Court, it is outlined that Louisiana’s first endorsement of non-unanimous verdicts for serious crimes was at an 1898 convention with the purpose of, in the words of one committee chairman at the time, “[establishing] the supremacy of the white race.” In the same section of the case it is noted that Oregon’s non-unanimous jury rules came alongside the rise in influence of the Ku Klux Klan. It is also stated in the Opinion of the Court section that the racial element of these laws has been acknowledged by both Oregon and Louisiana’s own courts.
One question is still left on the table about this ruling though, and that is what will happen to Oregonians currently incarcerated or otherwise affected by non-unanimous rulings. Currently, it seems unlikely that these people will see much change in their circumstances, since the retrials required would overwhelm Oregon’s courts.
By Ardea C. Eichner