Oregon lawmakers will try to do away with the state’s controversial jury system by introducing two bills in the 2019 legislative session. One would change state law and the other would refer the matter to voters to change the state constitution.
The move follows a vote Tuesday in Louisiana that left Oregon as the only state with non-unanimous juries in criminal felony cases. That means defendants can be convicted without all 12 jurors agreeing the verdict.
Critics of split juries say the laws allow for convictions when there is doubt among jurors, and that they deny defendants of color a jury of their peers.
“Ultimately, it is the best practice that we change the Constitution and take this provision out,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, who said she’ll sponsor the two bills. “In the meantime, I’d like to have a statutory fix that we can move forward with so that we don’t have another two years of non-unanimous juries.”
On Tuesday, voters in Louisiana overwhelmingly overturned their non-unanimous juries law. The law was passed after the Civil War and was widely considered the last Jim Crow law in the state because it was designed to make it easier to convict African-American defendants.
The history of Oregon’s law, though different, is also based in discrimination. Oregon’s non-unanimous jury law passed in 1934 during a time in the state’s history when the Ku Klux Klan was powerful and anti-immigrant sentiment was high.
Every other state and the federal government all require unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases.
Many attorneys, including Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, want to change the law.
Williamson has been working on potential legislation for more than a year, her staff said. In an interview, she said she believes there’s language in Oregon’s constitution that allows for a legislative fix.
“Some folks don’t believe that,” she said. “I’m guessing it will be challenged if we do that and then we’ll see what the court says. But in the meantime, you’ll also see a constitutional referral to get that process started so we’re not waiting for the courts.”
Williamson said unanimous juries could change the conversation surrounding plea agreements. More defendants might decide to go to trial if they know prosecutors need to get a unanimous verdict, she said.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, said Wednesday that she supports a referral to voters to change the law.
“I don’t think we should be the only state in the country with non-unanimous juries,” Kotek said. “Now, with the spotlight and now being the only state it’s a great opportunity — especially if it gets referred to a presidential year when you have a lot more voters looking at it. I think we can change the Constitution and we should. I would personally support that.”
Lane Borg, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, said he, too, supports efforts to change the Oregon law.
“At times, even though I think it is a civil rights issue, it has felt like a wonky insider law issue and often the courts fix that,” Borg said. “But they’re not going to fix it, so it needs to be a political fix. It just seems like the time has come.”
The Oregon District Attorneys Association tried to launch a campaign in January to remove the law, but the rollout was fumbled by a website that accidentally went live before key details were worked out.
“I do support the Legislature taking up the issue of unanimous juries,” Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said on Wednesday. “We would like to have Oregon join the rest of the country in having unanimity as it relates to the guilt of an individual charged with a crime or determination of not guilty.”
But not all prosecutors are as amenable to the change as Underhill. Some district attorneys support the use of non-unanimous juries, arguing that the law leads to a more efficient justice system and fewer hung juries.
OPB’s Dirk VanderHart contributed to this article.