Sixth Amendment

In a fractured 6-3 opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana the Supreme Court held that for convictions of serious crimes state court jury verdicts must be unanimous.

In 48 states and federal court, a single juror’s vote to acquit prevents a conviction. Louisiana and Oregon allow convictions for serious crimes based on 10-to-2 verdicts.

The Sixth Amendment states that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy...

In Apodaca v. Oregon (1972) and Johnson v. Louisiana (1972), five Justices agreed that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts in federal criminal cases. Five Justices also agreed that jury verdicts in state criminal cases don’t have to be unanimous. In Ramos v. Louisiana the Supreme Court will consider overruling the latter holding in Apodaca and Johnson. Only Oregon and Louisiana allow non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases.

Evangelisto Ramos was convicted 10-2 of second-degree murder based solely on circumstantial evidence and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ramos argues that the Fourteenth Amendment fully the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a unanimous verdict against the states.

If state legislatures don’t create an exception to their “no-impeachment” rules for jurors who make racially biased statements courts will read such an exception into their rules of evidence following the Supreme Court’s 5-3 decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado. At least 16 states already have adopted such an exception.  

Most states, including Colorado, and the federal government have a “no-impeachment” rule which prevents jurors from testifying after a verdict about what happened during deliberations with limited exceptions that do not include that a juror expressed racial bias. The rationale behind no-impeachment rules is to decrease the chances of juror being harassed post-verdict and to encourage jurors to “engage in searching and candid deliberations.”

In the words of the Colorado Supreme Court, two fundamental tenets of our judicial system are at odds with each other in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado:  protecting the secrecy of jury deliberations and ensuring a defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury.

Most states, including Colorado, and the federal government have a “no-impeachment” rule which prevents jurors from testifying after a verdict about what happened during deliberations with limited exceptions that do not include that a juror expressed racial bias.

In Hurst v. Florida the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because it allows the judge, instead of requiring the jury, to impose the death sentence.

In 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey the Court held that any factual determination that exposes a defendant to a punishment greater than that authorized by a jury’s guilty verdict must be determined by the jury. In Ring v. Arizona (2002) the Court held that Arizona’s capital sentencing scheme violated Apprendi because it allowed the judge to find facts necessary to impose the death sentence.

Florida’s scheme worked similar to Arizona’s. A jury verdict for first-degree murder would result in life in prison without parole unless a judge finds facts supporting a death sentence. But in Florida, unlike Arizona, the jury attends the sentencing evidentiary hearing and renders an “advisory verdict.” The jury does not have to specify any factual basis for its recommendation but the judge must give it “great weight.”

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