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Oregon Supreme Court finds hundreds convicted by nonunanimous juries deserve new trial

Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
/
Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

In a series of rulings handed down on Friday, the Oregon Supreme Court found that hundreds of people in the state’s prisons who were convicted by nonunanimous juries have a right to a new trial.

The opinion offers clarity for people convicted in trials where not everyone on the jury agreed the convicted person was guilty. Until recently, Oregon and Louisiana were the only states in the country that allowed people to be convicted of crimes when at least one juror expressed doubt.
The state’s high court acted after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down nonunanimous juries in 2020 in a ruling known as Ramos v. Louisiana. The Supreme Court decision noted that the split jury convictions violate a person’s Sixth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, people in prison with split jury convictions filed appeals of their cases, arguing that their constitutional rights had been violated. One of those cases involved Jacob Watkins, a man convicted of four felonies by a 10-2 split jury in 2010. Watkins’ case was the leading conviction reviewed in the state’s highest court rulings on Friday.

“We should also understand that the imposition of the nonunanimous verdict law in Oregon for more than 90 years has undermined the integrity of our judicial system and reduced public confidence in our laws and our system of justice,” Oregon Supreme Court Senior Justice Richard Baldwin writes in Friday’s opinion. “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.”

Both in Oregon and Louisiana, the nonunanimous jury laws had roots in racism. Oregon adopted the practice in 1934 as a reaction to a case where a jury couldn’t agree on a murder conviction for a Jewish man. Louisiana took up nonunanimous juries during Jim Crow so white landowners could more easily indenture Black Americans freed post-slavery.

Baldwin acknowledged that history in his opinion, as well as Oregon’s extensive past of Black exclusion laws.

“While Oregon did not approve nonunanimous juries as part of a brutal program of racist Jim Crow measures against Black Americans, its own voters … approved nonunanimous juries as a means of excluding nonwhites from meaningful participation in our justice system,” the justice writes.

Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland who uncovered the racist origins of the law, called the ruling a “great day for justice” in Oregon.

“While it took almost 90 years, the Court’s ruling goes far in correcting a historical wrong,” she said.

Ryan O’Connor, a Portland defense attorney who argued Watkins’ case, said he was pleased that his client and others would get a new chance to have their cases heard after being “convicted because of this xenophobic and racist law.”

“It’s amazing news. I’m just really grateful that the Supreme Court unanimously recognized the injustice that our clients and hundreds of other people suffered,” O’Connor told OPB.

It’s estimated that around 300 people are in Oregon’s prisons because of nonunanimous jury convictions.

The Oregon Supreme Court’s decision will no doubt have sweeping implications for victims, as well as backers of the law like the Oregon District Attorneys Association, which has argued nonunanimous juries created a more efficient justice system with fewer hung juries.

In a statement, the district attorneys group said it would be “challenging if not impossible” to take the nonunanimous jury cases back to court, many of which stretch back years if not decades.
“We must ensure that these victims, many who are women and children, need not face the terror of testifying once again before their abusers,” the DA’s association said in a written statement. “They will need adequate notification and a meaningful role in all critical moments of these cases going forward.”

The prosecutors said they plan to work with Oregon lawmakers to apply Friday’s ruling retroactively.
Last year, Democrats who hold majorities in the Oregon Legislature, opted not to move forward with legislation that would’ve vacated convictions for some, but not all people currently convicted by a nonunamious jury. At the time, many Democrats expressed concern about how their party might fare in November’s midterm elections as Republicans hammered tough-on-crime messaging.

The Oregon Department of Justice, which had defended the state’s practice of using nonunanimous juries as it sought legal clarity from the Supreme Court, called Friday’s decision a “critical piece of this complex process.”

“It has been a long and winding road to get here,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement. “I stand committed to eradicating inequities and ensuring fairness and impartiality in the delivery of justice in our state.”

O’Connor, the defense attorney, said he on some level understood why Oregon had defended the law since the 2020 federal decision to get legal clarity, but he still described it as frustrating.
“I have clients now who will have spent more than two years in prison having to fight through the courts to get to this remedy, and I think there were opportunities for the prosecutors and the (Oregon) Department of Justice to make the right call earlier,” O’Conner said.

Ryan Haas, Conrad Wilson