Supreme Court Limits Relief for People Who Were Wrongly Convicted


The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that its landmark decision in Ramos v. Louisiana from last year—holding that the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict a defendant—does not apply to defendants who were wrongly convicted before that decision.

In Ramos, the Court ruled that Louisiana’s system of allowing defendants to be convicted based on non-unanimous verdicts was unconstitutional, reasoning that a split verdict is “no verdict at all.” The decision applied to defendants who were awaiting trial and those whose cases were still pending on direct appeal in Louisiana and Oregon—the only two states that still allowed non-unanimous juries.

This week, however, in the case of Edwards v. Vannoy, the Court held that the Ramos decision is not retroactive, which means that defendants who were wrongly convicted by non-unanimous verdicts before the decision are not able to get relief.

Most new rules announced by the Supreme Court are not retroactive. But petitioner Thedrick Edwards, who was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison without parole after a Louisiana jury returned a split verdict in his case, argued that Ramos met an exception the Court created years ago for “watershed” rules of criminal procedure that address one of the “bedrock procedural elements” essential to a fair trial, like the right to counsel. If a decision is a “watershed” rule, then it must be applied retroactively to defendants convicted before the decision.

As Justice Kagan noted in her dissent, the Ramos Court termed the Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury “vital,” “essential,” “indispensable,” and “fundamental.”

The decision “vindicated core principles of racial justice,” detailing the racist origins of Louisiana’s non-unamity law—in a convention to “establish the supremacy of the white race”—and Oregon’s—in “the rise of the Ku Klux Klan”—and acknowledging that these laws functioned “as an engine of discrimination against black defendants.”

“Then and now,” Justice Kavanaugh observed in Ramos, “non-unanimous juries can silence the voices and negate the votes of black jurors.” Jury unanimity, he concluded, is necessary to prevent “racial prejudice” from resulting in wrongful convictions—which, the dissent points out, is exactly what watershed rules do.

In this week’s decision, the Court agreed that Ramos was “momentous and consequential” but rather than acknowledge that Ramos is a watershed rule, the Court took the extraordinary step of overturning the “watershed” rule exception—a question none of the parties had briefed or argued. Because no new rule of criminal procedure had ever been applied retroactively under the watershed exception since it was created, the majority decided that no new rule ever would.

For decades, Justice Kavanaugh wrote for the majority, “the Court has rejected watershed status for new procedural rule after new procedural rule, amply demonstrating that the purported exception has become an empty promise.” He concluded:

It is time—probably long past time—to make explicit what has become increasingly apparent to bench and bar over the last 32 years: New procedural rules do not apply retroactively on federal collateral review. The watershed exception is moribund. It must “be regarded as retaining no vitality.”

Overruling established precedent governing retroactivity without any party asking it to do so and without detailing any special justification “breaks a core judicial rule: respect for precedent,” the dissent wrote. “Seldom has this Court so casually, so off-handedly, tossed aside precedent.”

As a result, for the first time in decades, Justice Kagan wrote, “those convicted under rules found not to produce fair and reliable verdicts will be left without recourse in federal courts.” People whose appeals ran out before Ramos was decided have no recourse. And despite Ramos’s momentous holding that a verdict rendered by a divided jury is “no verdict at all,” Thedrick Edwards’s sentence of life in prison without parole, based on a 10-to-2 verdict, remains.