Supreme Court Considers Challenge to Convictions Made Under ‘Racist’ Jury Laws That Allowed Defendants to be Convicted Without a Unanimous Vote

On Wednesday, Dec. 2, the U.S. Supreme Court began to weigh a case that challenges convictions made under “racist Jim Crow” jury laws that allowed people to be convicted of felonies by non-unanimous juries.

The Supreme Court ruled in April in a case brought by Evangelisto Ramos, a Louisiana inmate convicted for a 2014 murder by a split jury, that laws permitting felony convictions by non-unanimous juries violate the Sixth Amendment.

The high court is now considering whether hundreds in Louisiana and Oregon could have their convictions voided. In the new case, Edwards v. Louisiana, justices will decide whether the Ramos ruling can be applied retroactively and strike down convictions made before the change.

Justice Elena Kagan agreed that the April decision should be binding for both past and future cases. “And so how could it be that a rule like that does not have retroactive effect?” she said during the Dec. 2 oral arguments.

But Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito both expressed skepticism that the April decision should be applied retroactively.

The new Edwards v. Louisiana case was brought by Thedrick Edwards, whose conviction on rape and kidnapping charges from 2006 was finalized by a split jury. Edwards is represented by Louisiana lawyer André Bélanger.

“A conviction can only be legally accurate if the state proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt of all jurors,” Bélanger said in the oral arguments.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in April in the majority opinion that Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury laws make Black jurors “meaningless.”

Kavanaugh wrote at the time that the laws began as “a pillar of a comprehensive and brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against African Americans.” 

Jeremy Morgan, 44, who was imprisoned in 1994 after 10 out of 12 jurors voted to convict him, said the April ruling could have prevented him from being convicted.

“Had that law been corrected back in 1993, I would’ve never got convicted and ended up wasting 20 years of my life,” Morgan told CBS News (seemingly discounting the possibility of being convicted in a second trial if the first ended with a hung jury). “We have a lot of racist laws here in Louisiana that should have been corrected long ago and it burns at you.”

Morgan was convicted at 17 of second-degree murder in the 1993 shooting of a 16-year-old after 10 jurors voted to convict him while the only two Black jurors voted to acquit him. Morgan remained behind bars until he was exonerated by evidence discovered by the Innocence Project more than 20 years later.

An analysis by the Promise of Justice Initiative found that 80 percent of the 1,500 people in Louisiana who are incarcerated due to non-unanimous jury verdicts are Black. According to the group, 62 percent of those convicted are serving life sentences with no parole.

The nonprofit Human Rights for Kids finds that at least 100 of those who remained incarcerated were children when they were convicted.

A decision on the Edwards case is expected later in the court’s term.

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