Oregon Supreme Court ruling on split jury convictions will not have major impact in Union County

Jan. 13—LA GRANDE — A December ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court — that the state's unanimous jury requirement applies to older cases — will not have a major impact in Union County.

"We have only a handful of cases that could be affected by the ruling," said Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel. "We will be doing an analysis of them."

The cases are ones involving split jury decisions prior to April 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all jury trials needed unanimous decisions. Prior to then, Oregon and Louisiana were the only states that did not require unanimous jury decisions.

The U.S. Supreme Court left it up to Oregon and Louisiana to determine if convictions before April 2020 involving non-unanimous juries could be overturned, according to an Oregon Department of Justice press release. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled on Friday, Dec. 29, 2022, that the unanimous jury requirement applies to all cases before 2020. This means almost all convictions involving split jury decisions will either be retried or overturned.

A number of factors will affect whether a split jury case will be retried, McDaniel said, including the availability of witnesses and evidence.

"These are all questions we would have to examine to determine if the cases could be prosecuted again," she said.

The Oregon District Attorney's Association said it would be "challenging if not impossible" to take non-unanimous jury cases back to court in the state, since many stretch back years, according to a story on the Oregon Public Broadcasting website.

McDaniel said Union County has fewer potential cases that could be retried than many other counties. Still, she wishes there were no potential cases that could be retired.

"I do not feel fortunate," McDaniel said. "One case is too many because of what it will put the victim through."

The Oregon District Attorney's Association, in a written statement, echoed McDaniel's concern for victims: "We must ensure that these victims, many who are women and children, need not face the terror of testifying once again before their abusers. They will need adequate notification and a meaningful role in all critical moments of these cases going forward."

The state's high court acted on the split jury issue after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down non-unanimous juries in 2020 in a ruling known as Ramos v. Louisiana. The Supreme Court decision noted that a split jury violates a person's Sixth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, including the right to an impartial jury.

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, people in prison with split jury convictions filed appeals of their cases, arguing that their constitutional rights had been violated. One of those cases involved Jacob Watkins, a man convicted of four felonies by a 10-2 split jury in 2010. Watkins' case was the leading conviction reviewed in the state's highest court rulings on Dec. 29.

It's estimated, according to OPB, that around 300 people are in Oregon's prisons because of non-unanimous jury convictions.

Split jury convictions had been allowed in Oregon starting in 1934 after a ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Prior to 2020 there had been at least two formal challenges to this rule according to the DOJ — one in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of split jury convictions in the state in Apodaca v. Oregon, and one in 2019 when legislation was introduced into a session of the Oregon Legislature that would have struck down non-unanimous convictions. The legislation did not become law.

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer. Contact him at 541-624-6016 or dmason@lagrandeobserver.com.