Oregon Supreme Court Upholds Non-Unanimous Acquittals in Criminal Cases

In February, the Supreme Court of Oregon released an opinion that trial attorneys in the state have been eagerly awaiting since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2020 decision in Ramos v. Louisiana. In Ramos, the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Oregon’s and Louisiana’s criminal jury systems which allowed a criminal defendant to be convicted of a felony without the unanimity of all jurors. The Supreme Court ultimately held that the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects a state criminal defendant’s rights to an impartial jury, which includes the requirement that a jury reach a unanimous verdict to convict. Ramos overturned a nearly one-hundred-year practice of non-unanimous convictions in Oregon.

But, because the Oregon Constitution allowed for both non-unanimous convictions and non-unanimous acquittals, a new question was raised which had been playing out throughout Oregon’s trial courts for the last six months. Did Ramos only remove the ability for a non-unanimous jury to convict, or did it also remove the ability for a non-unanimous jury to find a criminal defendant not guilty?

The recent Oregon Supreme Court decision, Oregon v. Ross, arose from a trial court decision in which the trial judge found that Ramos overruled the entirety of the Oregon Constitution section and statutory authority relating to non-unanimous juries in whole, for both convictions and acquittals. The defendant appealed and requested that the Supreme Court of Oregon weigh in for clarification. In reviewing the text of Ramos, the Court recognized that the Supreme Court’s holding was limited to protecting a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to a “trial by an impartial jury”. This protection includes the right to be convicted by nothing less than a unanimous jury. The Court further found that the opinion in Ramos was only limited to convictions as there is no Sixth Amendment prohibition against acquittals based on non-unanimous verdicts and there were no other Constitutional provisions which would bar Oregon courts from accepting non-unanimous acquittals. Thus, following the Court’s opinion in Ross, a jury on a felony criminal case may continue to acquit a defendant on a vote of at least 10-2, but must reach a unanimous verdict to convict.

As criminal defendants have always had the right to acquittal by a jury vote of 10-2, the decision in Ross will not have the immediate wide-ranging consequences that Ramos had. Rather, it is a helpful clarification on the standards to be applied moving forward after an upheaval of the Oregon Constitution and statutory law.