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Oregon Now Only State with Non-unanimous Jury System

Two men in Oregon convicted by non-unanimous juries have been exonerated this year. (Dun.can/Flickr)
Two men in Oregon convicted by non-unanimous juries have been exonerated this year. (Dun.can/Flickr)
November 8, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – With Tuesday's election now in the books, Oregon is the only state in the country that allows non-unanimous juries in felony trials.

Voters in Louisiana have passed an amendment banning the law that originated in the Jim Crow era allowing convictions even when one or two jurors disagree.

Nicole Lewis, a reporter with criminal justice-focused news outlet The Marshall Project, says a felony conviction often sends a person to prison for a long time and so the bar for proving someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt should be set high enough that everyone on the jury agrees.

"To have a split jury basically renders that perspective or that opinion totally null and obsolete, whereas in many other states with unanimous juries, it could result in a hung jury and you would get a retrial and just more opportunity to present a solid case," she points out.

This year, two people in Oregon have been exonerated after being convicted by a non-unanimous jury.

Unlike in Louisiana before it banned this law, however, a unanimous decision still is required in murder cases.

Lewis says Oregon's law allowing non-unanimous decisions originally was passed in 1934 after a trial in which one juror kept a Jewish man from being convicted of murder. He was instead convicted of manslaughter.

The trial unleashed anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments and paved the way for the law.

But Lewis notes the exoneration of two men this year has put momentum behind changing this law.

"It's possible that just like in Louisiana, residents will take it upon themselves and say, 'Well, if Louisiana did it, we could also try to get this issue on the 2020 ballot and have our chance to say whether or not we believe the practice of having non-unanimous juries should be continued,'" she states.

Last month, the Oregon Court of Appeals heard arguments contesting split-decision cases. State lawmakers expect the law to come up in the 2019 legislative session.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR