PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Supreme Court ruled Friday that the requirement for unanimous-jury verdicts in serious criminal cases does apply to convictions that predate the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision to outlaw Oregon and Louisiana’s practice of non-unanimous verdicts.
The Watkins v. Ackley decision, the Oregon Office of the Attorney General said in a statement Friday, gives clarity to Oregon law. This clarification will now give hundreds of Oregon convicts, who were found guilty despite non-unanimous verdicts, a chance to vacate their convictions without retrial.
“The Court acknowledged that Oregon law had not been clear on this important issue of retroactivity,” the Office of the Attorney General said in a statement Friday. “At least hundreds of convictions are involved, and the Oregon Department of Justice will work immediately to implement the Court’s decision.”
In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ramos v. Louisiana ruling reversed its 1972 decision (Apodaca v. Oregon), which previously upheld Oregon and Louisiana’s rights to implement non-unanimous jury verdicts. Oregon and Louisiana were the only two states in the U.S. to maintain these laws, which important legal figures like Justice Neil Gorsuch have said were racially motivated.
“Adopted in the 1930s, Oregon’s rule permitting non-unanimous verdicts can be similarly traced to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and efforts to dilute ‘the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries,’” Gorsich said in his 2020 opinion. “In fact, no one before us contests any of this; courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their states’ respective non-unanimity rules.”
In 2020, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reverse its 1972 ruling, calling it “good news,”
“It is an embarrassment to our otherwise progressive state that we are the only state in the country with a law in our constitution that allows criminal convictions without juror unanimity,” Rosenblum said.
Inmates and parolees have waited two years for Oregon to retroactively respond to the Supreme Court’s decision, which left open-ended questions regarding whether or not the ruling applied to Oregon’s prior non-unanimous convictions. In July of 2021, the Oregon Department of Justice asked the Court of Appeals to certify three post-conviction cases to the Oregon Supreme court to give the issue precedent.
Friday’s ruling answered those questions, the Office of the Attorney General said. Rosenblum issued a statement Friday in response to the ruling, calling the process a “long and winding road.”
“I am very grateful to both of our state appellate courts for expediting this important issue of retroactivity of the Ramos ruling,” she said. “It was a critical piece of this complex process of undoing a rule that should never have been enacted in the first place — now nearly 90 years ago. I stand committed to eradicating inequities and ensuring fairness and impartiality in the delivery of justice in our state.”
In a statement to KOIN 6 News, the Oregon District Attorneys Association said it is
“Many of these cases that will be forced to be retried are violent person crimes, and will cause significant victim re-traumatization,” the association said in its statement. “We must ensure that these victims, many who are women and children, need not face the terror of testifying once again before their abusers.”