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Supreme Court Finally Takes Up Jury Question Proposed by Jailhouse Lawyer

Jurors sitting  in courtroom
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

While serving a life sentence at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for a crime he maintained he didn’t commit, one question plagued Calvin Duncan:

How can a non-unanimous verdict by a jury in a criminal case be constitutional?

Louisiana voters approved an amendment to the state constitution late last year to bar non-unanimous verdicts; however, the rule does not apply retroactively. After over 20 years and more than two dozen attempts to persuade the Supreme Court to take up the issue, Duncan will finally see his question answered by SCOTUS this fall.

Persistence Personified

When Duncan was convicted of first-degree murder in 1985, he had a 10th-grade education. However, while serving his life sentence, he became a formidable legal advocate for his fellow inmates – earning 20 cents an hour as a “jailhouse lawyer.” During that time, he continued to raise the issue of non-unanimous verdicts, pushing the issue even when no one else thought it would go anywhere, according to Emily Maw of the New Orleans Innocence Project.

In 2011, Duncan was released from prison when the Louisiana Supreme Court found prosecutors withheld evidence in his case. He kept right on researching the issue, visiting the law library at Tulane University, where he would later earn his bachelor’s degree. The attorney who filed the petition granted cert, G. Ben Cohen, describes Duncan’s work as crucial to addressing the constitutionality of non-unanimous jury verdicts.

SCOTUS Will Consider Overruling Its Own Precedent

In 1972, the Supreme Court held that the 6th Amendment required a unanimous verdict in a federal criminal trial, but not a trial on state charges. In choosing to take on the issue again, there is a chance it will abandon that decision and save hundreds of people from life sentences.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Ramos v. Louisiana on October 7.

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