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Prompted by Baton Rouge case, U.S. Supreme Court rules against making Louisiana’s ban on non-unanimous juries retroactive

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 6:45 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday, May 17 that its ban on non-unanimous juries will not be retroactive.

The ruling denies legal relief for about 1,500 Louisiana inmates who were found guilty by divided juries.

Justices of the nation’s highest court agreed 6-3 that when the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 the U.S. Constitution requires a jury’s decision to be unanimous to convict a defendant for a crime, it was not a ruling that goes back in time.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh gave the majority opinion saying the court’s “well-settled retroactivity doctrine” led him to the conclusion that the decision doesn’t apply retroactively. He was joined in agreement by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

“For the first time in many decades ... those convicted under rules found not to produce fair and reliable verdicts will be left without recourse in federal courts, ” Justice Kagan wrote.

The Supreme Court’s decision affects prisoners who were convicted by split juries in Louisiana and Oregon as well as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Those two states and U.S. territory were the only jurisdictions in the U.S. that had allowed criminal convictions based on divided jury votes.

The Supreme Court was prompted to make its decision based on the case Edwards v. Vannoy, 19-5807, involving Thedrick Edwards, a Louisiana prisoner convicted by a split jury for a crime spree in Baton Rouge in 2006.

Edwards, who had confessed to police, is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole after being convicted by a split jury of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, and five counts of armed robbery. The jury divided 10-2 on most of the robbery charges and 11-1 on the remaining charges.

According to the Associated Press, Edwards, who is Black, has argued among other things that prosecutors intentionally kept Black jurors off the case; the lone Black juror on the case voted to acquit him.

“Those people who have already had their whole round of trials will not get new trials”, said Solicitor General Liz Murrill who represented Louisiana in the Ramos v. Louisiana case.

She believes the supreme court’s ruling was the right decision and had they felt differently, Louisiana would have had a mess on their hands.

“It would be a serious imposition on our court system and the court should not be applying new rules it finds to exist and apply them retroactively because it has a serious, serious effect on our criminal justice system”, said Murrill.

She says a lot of the cases that would have been set for re-trail date back decades. And the state courts would have had problems when it came to witnesses that are no longer alive and evidence against the defendants that has been lost or destroyed.

“You have to remember we’re talking about some of the oldest cases when we’re talking about the retroactive application of this rule”, Murrill explained.

But LSU law professor Ken Levy sees it differently.

“So, for every prisoner who was convicted on a 10-2 or 11-1 basis vote by the jury basically suffered an injustice”, said Levy.

According to Levy his decision isn’t necessarily based off sympathy for those who’ve been accused, but more to do with the fact that justice is simply justice.

“I think that given that injustice they should have the right to have their conviction reconsidered”, said Levy.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry issued the following statement shortly after Monday’s ruling:

“As the late great Justice Antonin Scalia famously and correctly opined, ‘the right to jury trial is fundamental to our system of criminal procedure, and States are bound to enforce the Sixth Amendment’s guarantees as [the Supreme Court] interpret them. But it does not follow that, when a criminal defendant has had a full trial and one round of appeals in which the State faithfully applied the Constitution as [the Supreme Court] understood it at the time, he may nevertheless continue to litigate his claims indefinitely in hopes that [the Supreme Court] will one day have a change of heart.’

Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed long-final convictions involving rape, murder, child molestation, and other violent crimes. It is a victory for Louisiana crime victims like the ones whom Thedrick Edwards confessed to raping, robbing, and kidnapping.

At a time when crime rates are through the sky and attempts to erode law and order are incessant, it is assuring that the Supreme Court upheld the rule of law.

I applaud my Solicitor General Liz Murrill and our Federalism Division for their great work in this case. They, the rest of my office, and I will continue to do all that we can to increase public safety in Louisiana and give crime victims the justice they deserve.”

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