PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Hundreds of defendants in Oregon who were convicted of crimes by non-unanimous juries before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such jury verdicts have a right to a new trial, under a decision issued by the state’s supreme court on Friday.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruling applies to state cases with non-unanimous jury verdicts where a criminal conviction was final and the appeals, if any, were over before the 2020 Supreme Court decision.
The state’s justice department said it will work immediately to implement the decision. It could affect at least 400 convictions, according to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
Oregon voters in the 1930s enacted a law that allowed for non-unanimous jury verdicts of 10-2 or 11-1 in most criminal cases, except those for first-degree murder. Until recently, Oregon was the only state in the country, along with Louisiana, that allowed people to be convicted of a crime when at least one juror expressed doubt.
But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down non-unanimous jury verdicts in 2020, ruling in Ramos v. Louisiana that they violated defendants’ constitutional right to a trial by jury and had roots in racism.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court that the practice should be discarded as a vestige of Jim Crow laws in Louisiana and racial, ethnic and religious bigotry that led to its adoption in Oregon.
“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 non-unanimity rules,” Gorsuch wrote.
The Oregon Supreme Court’s Friday ruling echoed a similar stance.
“While Oregon did not approve non-unanimous 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 non-unanimous juries as a means of excluding nonwhites from meaningful participation in our justice system,” Senior Judge and Justice pro tempore Richard Baldwin wrote. “With that understanding — and with a measure of courage — we can learn from our history and avoid such grievous injury in the future to our civic health.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum welcomed the decision, as did criminal justice advocates and defense lawyers.
Portland defense lawyer Ryan O’Connor represented Jacob Watkins, who was convicted of four felonies by a 10-2 jury in 2010. O’Connor said he hadn’t yet spoken with Watkins, who is in prison, but that Watkins’ family told him they were thrilled about the ruling.
“They said it’s the best holiday gift they’ve ever received,” O’Connor told The Associated Press, describing Friday as “a really wonderful day for justice” in Oregon. “It’s a big deal to probably reverse hundreds of convictions. Until today, people were sitting in prison ... based on verdicts that everyone agreed were unconstitutional.”
The Oregon District Attorneys Association expressed skepticism over the ruling. It said that “retrying decades old cases can be challenging if not impossible” and expressed concern for crime victims.
“Many of these cases that will be forced to be retried are violent person crimes, and will cause significant victim re-traumatization,” it said in a news release. “We must ensure that these victims, many who are women and children, need not face the terror of testifying once again before their abusers.”
After the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Oregon’s Appellate Division reviewed more than 750 criminal convictions that were on appeal and identified hundreds requiring reversal, according to the state justice department. Oregon appellate courts have since sent over 470 of the cases back for new trials, the department said.
Convictions dating back decades could be overturned, state justice department officials said, although the statute of limitations might bar relief for some older convictions.