This morning the Oregon Supreme Court in Watkins v. Ackley held that the requirement of unanimous jury verdicts in serious criminal cases applies to older criminal cases as well as those still on appeal. In doing so, the Court acknowledged that Oregon law had not been clear on this important issue of retroactivity.
At least hundreds of convictions are involved, and the Oregon Department of Justice will work immediately to implement the Court’s decision.
Today’s ruling applies to cases where a criminal conviction was final and the appeals, if any, were over before the Ramos decision issued in April 2020.
In 1934, Oregon voters enacted a law that allowed for non-unanimous jury verdicts of 10-2 or 11-1 in most criminal cases.
In 1972, in Apodaca v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Oregon’s non-unanimous jury verdicts. Oregon continued to allow non-unanimous verdicts until 2020.
In the 2019 Oregon legislative session, Oregon DOJ supported legislative efforts to put a measure on the ballot ending Oregon’s long-standing practice of non-unanimous jury verdicts. The bill did not make it into law.
In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Ramos v. Louisiana that under the U.S. Constitution, a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial includes the right to a unanimous jury verdict. Oregon DOJ welcomed the end to Oregon’s non-unanimous jury verdict rule. Its Appellate Division reviewed more than 750 direct appeal cases and identified hundreds of convictions requiring reversal. The Oregon appellate courts have since reversed these convictions and sent over 470 of these cases back for new trials.
The Ramos decision, however, left many questions unanswered, including whether the new procedural rule requiring unanimity applies to older cases where final judgments of conviction had already been entered when Ramos was decided.
In May 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court partially answered that question in Edwards v. Vannoy, ruling that under federal law, the right to a unanimous jury for serious criminal offenses applies to new cases going forward and cases currently on appeal, but does not require reversal of criminal convictions already final when Ramos was decided.
Edwards held that Ramos is not retroactive under federal law. But Edwards also clarified that states do not have to follow federal law and could make their own laws that would apply Ramos retroactively.
Oregon DOJ proceeded to ask the Oregon Legislature to take up this question. To date, there has been no legislative action.
In July 2021, Oregon DOJ asked the Court of Appeals to certify three cases to the Oregon Supreme Court concerning the Ramos retroactivity issue. The Supreme Court agreed to hear them on an expedited basis to provide a definitive ruling whether the unanimous jury rule would apply retroactively to state post-conviction cases. The result is the Court’s ruling today in Watkins.
In response to today’s decision, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said:
“It has been a long and winding road to get here. I am very grateful to both of our state appellate courts for expediting this important issue of retroactivity of the Ramos ruling. 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.”
More information on the opinion can be found here.