The Oregonian | By The Oregonian Editorial Board
In federal courts and in almost every state in the nation, juries find defendants guilty of felony charges only if the entire jury votes to convict. That longstanding tradition of unanimity, incorporated in the 6th Amendment, makes sense in a justice system that demands the government prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But jury unanimity isn’t the law in Oregon and Louisiana. The two outlier states require that only 10 of 12 jurors agree to a guilty verdict for defendants facing most state felony charges, including manslaughter, arson and rape. That watered-down standard, which enables the majority to disregard the concerns of holdout jurors, reflects the racist and xenophobic mentality that thrived at the time of their passage decades ago.
In Oregon and Louisiana, “guilty enough” is apparently good enough.
Critics of the law hope that may soon change. The U.S. Supreme Court is to decide next week whether to consider a case challenging Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law and, by extension, Oregon’s. While Oregonians should support the critics’ cause, they also should start the difficult work themselves of rescinding the state’s non-unanimous jury law and encouraging prosecutors to voluntarily seek unanimous verdicts. It’s long past time for Oregon to abandon a practice that can silence minorities, racial and otherwise, and embrace a higher standard of diligence.
Our justice system is built on noble principles and high standards. In reality, it falls short. National and local data show racial disparities in those who are arrested, prosecuted and convicted. Racial, religious and ethnic minorities comprise a small percentage of juries – a percentage that Oregon’s non-unanimous jury protocol allows to be ignored.
We should take pride in what our justice system strives for, and we should act with humility in how our justice system underperforms. A unanimous jury doesn’t guarantee justice but it is a step toward that goal. Guilty enough should no longer be good enough.