In a recent blog, we covered how a mistrial was declared in a case where a man admitted to breaking off the thumb of a Terracotta Warrior in a Philadelphia museum. In that case, the 12-member jury split, 7 to 5, in favor of acquittal.
The mistrial raises an important, supposedly simple, but actually quite complicated question: Does it take a unanimous jury to convict someone of a crime?
Unanimous Verdict Required in Federal Criminal Cases
Nowhere in the Constitution does it explicitly state that criminal defendants are entitled to a unanimous verdict. Instead, the Sixth Amendment merely says that the jury be “impartial” and come from “the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”
However, there is a federal law – Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 31 – that requires a unanimous verdict in all criminal cases brought in federal court. That law became effective in 1946.
Supreme Court: Non-Unanimous Verdicts Permissible in State Court
The vast majority of criminal cases, however, are brought in state court. These cases use state court rules, and do not have to follow Rule 31.
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that states could set their own rules that could allow for criminal convictions with less than a unanimous jury. In a very complicated court case from 1972, Johnson v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court stretched the words of the Sixth Amendment to include a right to a unanimous jury, before promptly limiting that right to criminal cases in federal court.
Nearly All States Have Laws that Require Unanimous Verdicts
However, nearly all states have passed laws that require unanimous verdicts of guilt in criminal cases in state court. In 2018, Louisiana passed an amendment to its state constitution that required unanimous verdicts in criminal trials, leaving Oregon as the only state that did not require a unanimous verdict.
Supreme Court to Revisit the Issue
Now, a case has reached the Supreme Court that could extend the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous verdict to cases in state courts, too.
That case involves a Louisiana man who was convicted of second degree murder. The jury voted 10-2 for conviction, but his trial happened in 2016, before Louisiana changed its state constitution to require unanimous verdicts. He was convicted and sentenced to life in jail.
He appealed his conviction, claiming that he had a Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous verdict, and argued that this right should not be limited to strictly federal court cases. Instead, he argued, it should be incorporated to apply to the states, as well.
The Court is expected to decide the case, Ramos v. Louisiana, in the Fall Term.
Joseph D. Lento: Philadelphia's Criminal Defense Lawyer
As you can see, the answer to such a simple question – do you have a right to a unanimous verdict in a criminal case – is nuanced. You have a right to one under the U.S. Constitution, but only if your case is in federal court. In Pennsylvania state court, you have a right to one under state law or, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in Ramos, a constitutional right to one under the Sixth Amendment.