SCOTUS: Felony Jury Trials Require Unanimous Verdicts in All States

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SCOTUS: Felony Jury Trials Require Unanimous Verdicts in All States

In Ramos v. Louisiana, a 6-3 majority of the High Court nullified Louisiana’s constitutional provision allowing non-unanimous (10-2) verdicts in felony cases. Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, concluded that two SCOTUS decisions in 1972 allowing non-unanimous verdicts in Louisiana and Oregon (the only other state that has allowed 10-2 verdicts) stand on “shaky ground” and must be reversed. Ramos now makes clear the Sixth Amendment’s unanimous verdict requirement applies to the state prosecutions, not just to federal cases. An important dynamic at play in this decision is the differing views on applicability of stare decisis. The dissenting justices argued vigorously that the 1972 decisions of the court should be honored here. One can easily start to wonder what other case doctrines from the 1970s will be subject to clashing arguments about binding precedents.

Roger Stone’s Claims of Jury Misconduct Denied by Trial Judge

In denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial, Judge Amy Berman Jackson observed the defense chose not to look for social media information. None of the seven lawyers or the two jury consultants on the defense team performed the rudimentary Googling that located this set of Facebook and Twitter posts: not during the two months they were in possession of the entire set of jury questionnaires with the jurors' names on them; not during the four to five days before trial when they knew the exact order in which the members of the jury panel would be questioned and seated as jurors; not during the two days of jury selection; and not overnight after the twelve jurors and two alternates had been picked and instructed to return the next morning to be sworn. With respect to the alleged bias of the jury foreperson who was critical of President Trump on social media, Judge Jackson shrugged at Stone’s "parade of adjectives," and noted that dislike of the president does not equal bias against Roger Stone, as "linking them together in a sentence does not make them one and the same."

On Both Sides of the Atlantic, Debates Continue About Whether to Conduct Jury Trials During Pandemic

The Law Society of Scotland recommends the Scottish Government continue jury trials but not without adopting some reforms. These include streamlining the jury selection process to automatically exempt essential health workers, those with caring responsibilities, and anyone who is ill or self-isolating as a result of COVID-19 symptoms, as well as simplifying the ballot system to avoid unnecessary attendance at court for jurors. Here in the states, great hesitancy prevails.

Judge Polls Jurors in Ongoing Trial During Pandemic: Do Feel Well Enough to Continue?

In a federal criminal trial, jury selection started on March 9 but was continued at the defendant’s request until May 4. Before resuming voir dire, Judge William Alsup is now sending a 10-item questionnaire (developed by the parties) to prospective jurors to assess their health, level of exposure to COVID-19, and willingness to serve during the pandemic. The parties have also submitted memoranda proposing courtroom safety measures.

Murder Verdict Overturned Due to Improper Replacement of a Deliberating Juror

After six hours of deliberations over the course of two days, the trial court received a jury note saying,

Your Honor[,] we have a juror that does not believe any of the witness testimony, does not believe any of the evidence that was submitted by the D.A. for this case, and says that there is no proof that Roger or Moses were in the house on Dec. 23, 2017. And the only thing that would change their mind, would be to see a clear resolution video from within the house showing both Roger and Moses firing the guns. Is this a hung jury? (emphasis in the original)

Upon reading the note aloud, the judge announced his intention to call in the jurors, ask for the identity of the foreperson, and then ask the foreperson and the jury as a whole if the information in the note was accurate. When the trial court did so, the foreperson and the other jurors agreed that the note was accurate. The trial court then asked for the identity of the individual “that’s holding this position,” and Juror 23 responded by raising her hand and stating her name. The trial court then replaced Juror 23 with an alternate and directed the jury to begin deliberations anew. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the conviction after finding the judge’s “very limited” inquiry after receiving the jury note did not provide a sound basis for the dismissal. It further determined Juror 23 did not refuse to deliberate but rather simply reached a different conclusion than her fellow jurors.