In New Jersey, there are some important distinctions between juries in civil trials and those in criminal ones. In a civil trial (a lawsuit regarding something other than a criminal matter), there are typically six jurors that will decide the outcome, compared to 12 jurors in a criminal trial.
The more important distinction, however, is the level of a agreement required for a verdict. In civil cases, only five jurors need to agree in favor of one of the parties to the lawsuit. In a criminal trial, a guilty verdict must be unanimous. If even one juror votes to acquit, it leads to a “hung jury” and a mistrial. The reasoning behind this is simple but profound: No one should be deprived of their liberty unless there is full agreement of their guilt.
U.S. Supreme Court ruling brought consistency nationwide
Nearly every state already had a policy similar to New Jersey’s, at least for criminal cases alleging serious criminal offenses. But there were two holdouts: Louisiana (which did away with non-unanimous juries in 2018) and Oregon. In 2020, the United States Supreme Court held that a unanimous jury verdict is required in all serious criminal cases. The majority opinion stated that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a unanimous verdict.
Since then, the need for unanimous criminal verdicts has been the “law of the land.” But what about convictions that occurred before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling? Addressing those cases was largely left to individual states.
Oregon announces major decision
Recently, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the unanimous jury requirement should be applied retroactively to older verdicts that have been challenged in post-conviction motions. The court made this decision while noting that it could open the floodgates and spark the reexamination of many cases, even those that were decided years or decades ago.
This is an important decision, and it could ultimately lead to the exoneration of some wrongfully convicted individuals. It is unclear how many cases will be impacted or how many verdicts changed, but many observers see this as a major step forward for criminal justice in the United States.