Does the right to a unanimous jury verdict in state criminal court, decided in Ramos v. Louisiana, apply retroactively?
This case asks the Supreme Court to decide whether Ramos v. Louisiana, which held that a criminal defendant charged in state court can only be convicted by a unanimous jury, applies retroactively to cases that were finalized before Ramos was decided. Petitioner Thedrick Edwards was convicted under Louisiana’s nonunanimous jury rule and contends that Ramos recognized an ancient guarantee of criminal procedure that should be given retroactive effect under Teague v. Lane. Alternatively, Edwards asserts that Ramos enunciated a new watershed rule that must be applied retroactively because of the importance of juror unanimity to ensure accurate convictions. In response, Respondent Darrel Vannoy, the Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, argues that Ramos overruled Apodaca v. Oregon and announced a new rule that significantly changes criminal proceedings in states that allowed conviction by nonunanimous juries. Additionally, Vannoy claims that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1966 independently bars the retroactive application of Ramos. The outcome of this case has heavy implications for individuals seeking retrial for guilty verdicts decided by nonunanimous juries.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020), applies retroactively to cases on federal collateral review.
Ryan Eaton drove to his girlfriend’s apartment near Louisiana State University on May 13, 2006, around 11:30 P.M. Edwards v. Cain, Report and Recommendation at 3. As Eaton exited the vehicle, two armed assailants abducted him and took him to the ATM to withdraw cash, then to Eaton’s apartment to steal some personal property, and then to Eaton’s girlfriend’s apartment where the assailants raped two women at gun point. Id. at 4. Neither of the female victims could identify their assailants, but Eaton “got a good look” at the alleged assailant, Petitioner Thedrick Edwards. Id. Two weeks later, a similar robbery occurred—a man named Marc Verrett was assailed, and Verrett identified another man, Joshua Johnson, as one of the attackers. Id. at 5. Despite having no criminal background, the police pursued Edwards as a suspect and within a day of the second attack obtained and executed a search warrant at Edwards’s residence. Brief for Petitioner, Thedrick Edwards at 3–4. During questioning with police, Edwards confessed to the offenses, though it was later alleged that police used force to coerce those confessions. Id.
In December 2007, Edwards was found guilty of five counts of armed robbery, one count of aggravated rape, and two counts of aggravated kidnapping and was sentenced to five 30-year sentences and three life sentences to run consecutively. Edwards v. Cain, Report and Recommendation at 1–2. Four of the armed robbery counts resulted in a jury verdict of 10-2, and the remaining armed robbery, two kidnapping, and rape counts each resulted in a jury verdict of 11-1. Id. at 3. After unsuccessful direct appeals and applications for post-conviction relief in state court, Edwards applied for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on the grounds that his conviction violated his right to, inter alia, an impartial jury. Id. at 1–2. The Middle District of Louisiana assigned the case to a Magistrate Judge who recommended denial of Edwards’ habeas petition on the grounds that the Supreme Court’s consistent denials of certiorari in cases regarding the constitutionality of nonunanimous juries demonstrated that the Court considered the issue to be settled law. Id. at 10–11. As such, the Magistrate Judge reasoned, the nonunanimous jury verdict from Edwards’ trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment rights. Id.
The District Court approved the Magistrate Judge’s recommendations over Edwards’ objections. Edwards v. Cain, Ruling and Order at 4. Subsequently, The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Edwards’s appeal because he failed to show that his constitutional rights had been denied. Edwards v. Vannoy, Fifth Circuit Order at 1–2. The Supreme Court granted Edwards’ petition for certiorari on May 4, 2020.
DID RAMOS ANNOUNCE AN OLD RULE OR A NEW RULE?
Edwards argues that Ramos v. Louisiana recognized the “old rule” that juries must be unanimous to convict a criminal defendant under the Sixth Amendment. Brief for Petitioner, Thedrick Edwards at 12. Using the framework established by the Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane, which held that old rules that emerge from long-recognized principles embodied in legal precedent should be given retroactive effect, Edwards contends that his conviction by a nonunanimous jury violates his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. Id. at 10, 12–13. Edwards claims this result is compelled based on three principles: first, a criminal conviction by a unanimous jury is an “ancient guarantee” found in the common law, state practices when the Constitution was written, and court opinions from that era; second, the right to trial by jury is incorporated against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause because it is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice”; and third, federal law requires that a unanimous jury alone can convict a defendant faced with a criminal prosecution, which should also be a requirement in state court because incorporated constitutional rights such as this apply the same way against the federal and state governments. Id. at 13–16. Edwards further asserts that Ramos did not articulate a new rule, despite the fact that Supreme Court overruled Apodaca v. Oregon. Id. at 17–18. Instead, Edwards argues that a reasonable jurist would have recognized that the Supreme Court’s Apodaca decision was an outlier and was inconsistent with existing precedent. Id. at 18–20. In Apodaca, the court’s opinion was deeply divided; a majority of the justices found that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts to convict in federal court, and that the Sixth Amendment applies against the state and federal government identically, implying that state juries must also be unanimous to convict. Id. at 18–19. However, the Court upheld the nonunanimous conviction in Apodaca and issued a “badly fractured set of opinions.” Id. at 19. In fact, in Ramos, Apodaca was described as “uniquely irreconcilable” with the Supreme Court’s precedent. Id. Therefore, a reasonable jurist would have recognized that Apodaca’s outcome was anomalous, and Apodaca should not be interpreted to foreclose Ramos from recognizing an old rule. Id. at 18–20.
Vannoy contends that Ramos instead articulated a new rule that cannot be applied retroactively to cases like Edwards’, which were finalized before Ramos was decided. Brief for Respondent, Darrel Vannoy at 14. Vannoy distinguishes Ramos from other cases where the Court has found old rules, such as Stringer v. Black. Id. There, the Court found that the rule in question was logically dictated by past Supreme Court decisions, but importantly, the Court did not explicitly overrule a prior Court case as was necessary in Ramos. Id. Vannoy asserts that the three precepts articulated by Edwards are not persuasive arguments that Ramos articulated an old rule and, instead, are merely reasons why Apodaca was wrongly decided. Id. at 23. After all, Vannoy notes, lower courts were bound by Apodaca to uphold nonunanimous convictions in Oregon and Louisiana for nearly five decades. Id. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s overturning of Apodaca in Ramos “broke new ground” and imposed new obligations on state courts consistent with a new rule. Id. at 19. Vannoy also argues that reasonable jurists could not have anticipated that the Supreme Court would overrule Apodaca, a 47-year-old case, when deciding Ramos which renders the rule announced in Ramos as new. Id. at 14, 23. Further, Vannoy reasons that in the founding era, the Bill of Rights applied only against the federal government and after incorporation, the Supreme Court has only generally recognized that the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights apply in the same way against the federal and state governments while continuing to acknowledge the Apodaca exception. Id. Taken together, Vannoy asserts that when Edwards’ claim was decided, reasonable jurists could disagree about the requirement of jury unanimity under Apodaca. Id. at 24.
DID RAMOS ANNOUNCE A WATERSHED RULE?
Alternatively, Edwards contends that if Ramos announced a new rule, it would be a watershed rule that is “central to an accurate determination of innocence or guilt” and would also apply retroactively under Teague. Brief for Petitioner at 22, 30. A watershed rule applies retroactively because the rule fundamentally impacts “bedrock procedural elements” that are essential “to vitiate the fairness of a particular conviction” and guard against procedures that allow “an impermissibly large risk” of convicting innocent defendants. Id. at 23. For this rule, Edwards cites Ramos, which argued that jury unanimity is a crucial and necessary component of an accused’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Id. at 24. Edwards reasons that in Oregon and Louisiana, the only two states that still allowed convictions by way of nonunanimous juries, Ramos effected a widespread change consistent with a watershed rule. Id. at 26. Considering the historical origins of the jury-trial right, Edwards maintains that the jury-trial right is even more fundamental than an accused’s right to counsel, as vindicated in Gideon v. Wainwright. Id. Consistent with Gideon, Edwards asserts that a defendant’s conviction by a nonunanimous jury so fundamentally alters a defendant’s trial so as to constitute a structural error. Id. at 26. Edwards also contends that requiring jury unanimity maximizes accuracy in the fact-finding process and does not allow a majority of jurors to disregard a dissenting juror. Id. at 27–28. Therefore, the requirement of jury unanimity ensures there is not an intolerably large risk that an innocent defendant is convicted, therefore rendering jury unanimity a watershed rule. Id. at 22. Edwards further points out that Ramos’s rule aligned Oregon and Louisiana’s due process requirements, as they pertain to jury unanimity, with the requirements observed by the remaining states and federal government. Id. at 30–31. Importantly, Edwards notes that Oregon and Louisiana’s nonunanimous systems had roots in the disenfranchisement of minority voters. Id. at 38. While Teague respects a state’s interests in finality, Edwards claims that fairness ultimately supports retroactive application in cases where the nonunanimous jury requirements are rooted in state-sponsored racial discrimination. Id. at 38. Therefore, Edwards asserts the Ramos holding clears the high bar to recognition as a watershed rule and should be retroactively applied. Id. at 30.
Vannoy counters that Ramos’s new procedural rule does not qualify as a watershed rule. Brief for Respondent at 24. Unlike substantive rules, Vannoy asserts, procedural rules are rarely applied retroactively because they “do not produce a class of persons convicted of conduct the law does not make criminal, but merely raise the possibility that someone convicted with use of the invalidated procedure might have been acquitted otherwise.” Id. at 25–26. Vannoy contends that procedural rules less directly implicate a defendant’s guilt or innocence and, therefore, no court has identified a procedural rule under Teague worthy of watershed status. Id. at 26–27. Vannoy points to prior Court decisions that declined to render retroactive procedural rules relating to the jury right and racial discrimination, as well as in some capital cases. Id. at 30. Importantly, Vannoy posits that jury unanimity does not present an intolerable risk of convicting an innocent defendant. Id. at 30. Vannoy argues that sometimes requiring unanimity may actually decrease accuracy of a jury verdict in situations where a single holdout juror can disregard the evidence and stymy progress. Id. at 34–35. Vannoy asserts that this distinguishes the Edwards’s case from Gideon. Id. at 35. Further, Vannoy points to other countries that have done away with the unanimous-jury requirement as evidence that a conviction by a unanimous jury is not presumptively inaccurate or unfair. Id. at 36–37. Vannoy adds that in Edwards’ case, a unanimous-jury requirement would not have increased the risk of an erroneous conviction because Edwards confessed to the crimes he was charged with and there was also compelling evidence of his guilt. Id. at 37.
DOES THE AEDPA BAR RETROACTIVE APPLICATION OF RAMOS?
Edwards emphasizes that the Court chose to limit the question presented in this case to whether Ramos applies retroactively on federal habeas review, and therefore the Court does not have to decide whether Edwards should receive relief under the standard enunciated in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA"). Reply Brief for Petitioner, Thedrick Edwards at 19. Importantly, Edwards contends, whether Ramos applies retroactively under Teague should be decided before the Court conducts an analysis under the AEDPA. Id. at 19–20. Nonetheless, Edwards states that old rules presumptively apply retroactively and have been recognized as qualifying “clearly established federal law”; therefore, if the court finds that Ramos articulated an old rule, Edwards’s claim would not automatically be barred by the AEDPA. Id. at 20. On the other hand, if the Court found that Ramos recognized a new rule, Edwards believes that Congress’s mention of the retroactivity of new rules in different statutory provisions of the AEDPA is entirely consistent with retroactive application of new rules that come before the court on federal collateral review. Id. at 21. Edwards argues that the AEDPA sections that explicitly mention retroactive application of new rules in federal habeas cases only apply to further limit successive petitions by defendants whose convictions have already withstood collateral attack once. Id. Edwards also reasons that other statutory provisions of the AEDPA would be superfluous if the relevant AEDPA barred all relief for retroactive new rules, antithetical to the canons of statutory interpretation. Id. Edwards concludes by referencing lower-court decisions that have interpreted the AEDPA to allow habeas petitions after the Supreme Court designates a new substantive or watershed rule. Id.
Vannoy claims that regardless of whether Ramos articulated an old rule or a new rule, Edwards is not entitled to habeas relief under the AEDPA. Brief for Respondent at 46. The AEDPA bars relitigation of a state prisoner’s habeas corpus claim that was litigated by a state court on the merits in federal court. Id. at 47. However, there are two exceptions to this relitigation bar if the prisoner can show that the state court’s adjudication resulted in a decision that was (1) contrary to, or (2) involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court. Id. at 47. Here, Vannoy argues that the state court correctly applied Apodaca in upholding Edwards’s conviction and so Edwards cannot meet this standard. Id. at 49. Alternatively, even if Ramos provided a watershed rule, Vannoy contends that Edwards still cannot overcome the relitigation bar of the AEDPA and watershed rules generally should not be exempted from the relitigation bar. Id. at 50–52. Vannoy rejects the idea that federal courts should retroactively apply watershed rules to habeas petitions based on the plain language of the statutory provision because Congress included exceptions for watershed rules in other statutory provisions but not for the relevant federal habeas petition provision, which implies that Congress intentionally left that language out. Id. Vannoy asserts that this is within Congress’s power over the federal courts and should be respected, especially because procedural rules are less likely to lead to wrongful convictions. Id. at 52.
The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc. (the “NAACP”), in support of Edwards, argues that a conviction that is rendered by a nonunanimous jury is inherently inaccurate. Brief of Amici Curiae NAACP, in Support of Petitioner at 6. The NAACP further contends that since a minimum of one juror voted against conviction, a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right is violated because the prosecution was incapable of convincing a unanimous jury that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. Additionally, the NAACP argues that a nonunanimous jury verdict brings doubt as to whether there was sufficient evidence to actually support a conviction. Id. at 10. Additionally, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, et. al (the “Lawyers’ Committee”) claims that a nonunanimous jury verdict must be, “by definition, inaccurate[.]” Brief of Amici Curiae Lawyers’ Committee, in Support of Petitioner at 12. The Lawyers’ Committee also contends that nonunanimous jury verdicts have resulted in numerous wrongful convictions. Id. at 12–19. To support these conclusions drawn by other amici, the Innocence Project New Orleans (the “Innocence Project”) presents evidence that 100 innocent people in Louisiana prisons were convicted based on nonunanimous jury verdicts. Brief of Amici Curiae Innocence Project, in Support of Petitioner at 14–18.
The State of Oregon (“Oregon”), in support of Vannoy, argues that a nonunanimous jury verdict does not inherently create inaccurate convictions. Brief of Amici Curiae State of Oregon, in Support of Respondent at 13. Specifically, Oregon claims that social science and jury dynamics studies that may suggest otherwise cannot be used to interpret the Sixth Amendment. Id. However, Oregon states that even if nonunanimous juries could be used in this way, the data of these studies does not actually lead to the conclusion that nonunanimous jury verdicts lead to more erroneous convictions. Id. at 13–14. Additionally, the United States contends that the retroactive application of the Ramos rule requiring unanimous jury verdicts would be unduly disruptive to the final convictions in state courts because it would require victims to relive trauma and because locating evidence and previous witnesses would be difficult. Brief of Amici Curiae United States, in Support of Respondent at 30–31.
RACISM AND INEQUALITY
The Innocence Project, in support of Edwards, argues that the nonunanimous jury verdict rule is an artifact of a time when white supremacists wrote legislation within Louisiana. Brief of Amici Curiae Innocence Project New Orleans, in Support of Petitioner at 9. The Innocence Project highlights that all but three of the people in Louisiana who were convicted by nonunanimous jury verdicts are Black. Id. at 10–11. Additionally, the Innocence Project claims that the nonunanimous jury verdict does not just disproportionately affect Black defendants, but also disproportionately discounts Black jury members’ votes. Id. at 13–14. Specifically, the Innocence Project directs to its research finding that, with a nonunanimous jury verdict, a white juror has a 7% chance of having her vote discounted whereas a Black juror has a 25% chance of the same. Id. at 14. The NAACP, in support of Edwards, agrees that the nonunanimous jury verdict was specifically designed for the purposes of excluding Black jurors and to ensure the inequitable conviction of Black people despite a lack of evidence. Brief of Amici Curiae NAACP at 16. Additionally, the NAACP claims that the nonunanimous jury verdict runs counter to the premise in America’s criminal justice system that the law punishes individuals based on their crimes and not their identity because nonunanimous jury verdicts are more likely to devalue Black jury votes and convict Black defendants. Id. at 20.
Respondent Edwards disputes that the nonunanimous jury verdict resulted from and continues to perpetuate racial inequality. Brief for Respondent at 42–46. Respondent argues that the “race-tainted origins” of this rule in Louisiana do not discredit the validity of the rule because there has been a clear demarcation in time between the original introduction of the rule and the recodification of the rule. Id. at 42. The new recodification of the rule, Respondent claims, cites the clear and valid purpose of “judicial efficacy[.]” Id. at 43. Additionally, Respondent asserts that race-neutral laws can be cleansed of their racist histories when they are reenacted by legislatures who act without any racist purpose. Id. Respondent also states that the Louisiana citizens voted to change the Louisiana Constitution so as to require unanimous jury verdicts, but only voted to do so on a prospective basis. Id. at 44–45. Since the voters specifically did not vote for the amendment to apply retroactively, Respondent argues, the Court should not circumvent the political process. Id. at 45.
The authors would like to thank Professor John Blume for his guidance and insights into this case.
- Matt Reynolds, Oregon and Louisiana Grapple with Past Criminal Convictions Made with Split Verdicts, ABA Journal (Oct. 1, 2020).
- Jordan S. Rubin, Supreme Court to Explore Limits of Its Jury Unanimity Ruling, Bloomberg Law (May 4, 2020).
- John Simerman, More Than 1,500 Louisiana Inmates Were Convicted by Divided Juries, New Report Says, NOLA (Nov. 17, 2020).