WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) – A Louisiana inmate serving life without parole is asking the nation’s highest court to give him the right to a new trial after a non-unanimous jury convicted him.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the 6th Amendment establishes the right to a unanimous jury in federal and state courts. The justices heard arguments Wednesday on whether inmates whose convictions became final before that decision can now take advantage of it.
“Why should the 6th Amendment mean something less to Mr. Edwards?,” asked Andre Belanger, the attorney representing Thedrick Edwards.
Edwards was convicted on charges of armed robbery, rape and kidnapping, but the only Black member of the jury found Edwards, who is also black, not guilty.
“Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury scheme was thoroughly racist and discriminatory in its origin,” Belanger said.
Belanger argued the recent decision by the high court should apply retroactively to his case. Edwards wants a new trial.
“Provide the promise of a fair trial to all Louisianans,” Belanger said.
Justice Stephen Breyer wanted to know how many other inmates could make the same request.
“Can the Louisiana system handle that?,” Breyer asked.
“Oh yes, sir,” Belanger said.
Edwards is one of about 1,500 Louisiana inmates still in prison after non-unanimous jury verdicts. The New Orleans-based Promise of Justice Initiative says 80 percent are Black and more than half are serving life without parole.
The state’s solicitor general, Elizabeth Murrill, argued they should stay behind bars.
“Declaring the Ramos rule retroactive unsettles thousands of cases that involved terrible crimes in all three jurisdictions,” Murrill said. “Requiring new trials and long final criminal cases would be impossible in sum and particularly unfair to the victims of these crimes.”
Murrill told the justices a supermajority verdict doesn’t automatically make a trial unfair or inaccurate. Justice Elena Kagan agreed.
“It might be that the unanimity rule allows more guilty people to go free than it stops innocent people from being convicted,” Kagan said. “Or at least it’s just not certain.”
The high court will ultimately decide the fate of Edwards and other inmates by next summer. The ruling would also impact prisoners in Oregon.