Justices Limit New Trials For Non-Unanimous Convictions

By Jimmy Hoover | May 17, 2021, 10:36 AM EDT

The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday that defendants whose appeals have run out cannot take advantage of last term's ruling that convictions by non-unanimous juries are unconstitutional, denying automatic new trials for potentially thousands of prisoners in Louisiana and Oregon convicted under what the justices said were racist schemes.

Last year in Ramos v. Louisiana , the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment's requirement of unanimous juries applies to the states as well. The ruling overturned precedent allowing Louisiana and Oregon to continue convicting people of serious crimes without the votes of all jurors, while describing how those jury schemes had origins in racist efforts to dilute the holdout votes of minority jurors.

In a 6-3 vote on Monday, the Supreme Court said that decision does not apply retroactively to cases on federal collateral review, denying defendants convicted by non-unanimous juries the right to challenge their convictions even if they have used up their appeals. The three liberal justices dissented.

"The question in this case is whether the new rule of criminal procedure announced in Ramos applies retroactively to overturn final convictions on federal collateral review," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his opinion for the conservative majority. "Under this court's retroactivity precedents, the answer is no."

The instant case was brought by petitioner Thedrick Edwards, a Black man convicted a decade ago of kidnapping, rape and armed robbery in Louisiana over the lone Black juror's vote to acquit on all counts; he is serving a life sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison farm in Angola.

During oral arguments in December, Edwards' attorney, André Bélanger of Manasseh Gill Knipe & Bélanger PLC, said "the state has no legitimate interest in avoiding retroactivity but for its desire to let Mr. Edwards languish in Angola for the rest of his life."

Justice Elena Kagan, who originally dissented to the Ramos decision out of a stated respect for precedent, also condemned the majority's refusal to apply that decision retroactively to cases on collateral review.

"The result of today's ruling is easily stated," Justice Kagan said in a dissent joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Stephen Breyer. "Ramos will not apply retroactively, meaning that a prisoner whose appeals ran out before the decision can receive no aid from the change in law it made. So Thedrick Edwards, unlike Evangelisto Ramos, will serve the rest of his life in prison based on a 10-to-2 jury verdict," she said, referring to the defendant in last term's Ramos decision.

Belanger told Law360 in a statement that, while "disappointed" in the ruling, "the fight is not over."

"Louisiana courts can still apply Ramos retroactively as a matter of state law," he said. "This is obviously something that will be litigated moving forward. Fortunately, many of the individuals impacted by the Edwards decision today have timely filed post conviction applications in state court to argue this issue."

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry applauded the decision Monday as a victory for crime victims.

"Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed long-final convictions involving rape, murder, child molestation, and other violent crimes. It is a victory for Louisiana crime victims like the ones whom Thedrick Edwards confessed to raping, robbing, and kidnapping," he said. "At a time when crime rates are through the sky and attempts to erode law and order are incessant, it is assuring that the Supreme Court upheld the rule of law."

No New 'Watershed' Rules

Justice Kavanaugh's ruling could have broader implications still. That's because his majority opinion overturned a 1989 Supreme Court precedent saying that new "watershed" rules of criminal procedure should apply retroactively.

Justice Kavanaugh said that in the 32 years since the Supreme Court established the "watershed rule" test in the case Teague v. Lane, it has yet to find a single rule that meets the test and that Teague itself said such rules are unlikely to emerge. Justice Kavanaugh therefore called the watershed rule test "moribund" and that "[w]e cannot responsibly continue to suggest otherwise to litigants and courts."

"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," Justice Kavanaugh said. "The watershed exception is moribund."

Justice Kagan said the court's overturning of the "watershed rule" test in Teague "breaks a core judicial rule: respect for precedent," pointing out that none of the party's asked the court to overrule the test.

The majority "gives only the sketchiest of reasons for reversing Teague's watershed exception," she said. According to her dissent, Justice Kavanaugh's decision elided discussion of the usual factors the court is supposed to consider before overturning precedent.

"The majority can't be bothered with that customary, and disciplining, practice; it barely goes through the motions. Seldom has this Court so casually, so off-handedly, tossed aside precedent," she said.

Edwards is represented by Manasseh Gill Knipe & Bélanger PLC, Sidley Austin LLP and the Supreme Court Practicum at the Northwestern University School of Law.

Louisiana is represented by the Louisiana Attorney General's Office.

The federal government is represented by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The case is Edwards v. Vannoy, case number 19-5807, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Update: This story has been updated with additional information about the decision and comments from the parties.

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