Lawmakers in Salem heard broad support Monday from advocates and district attorneys for a bill that would ask voters to scrap Oregon’s unique, nonunanimous jury system.
The House Rules Committee heard testimony from the public about House Joint Resolution 10, which proposes changing Oregon’s Constitution to require juries to reach unanimous verdicts in all criminal cases.
“It is time for the thoughtful review of this law,” said Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton, speaking on behalf of the Oregon District Attorneys Association. “Times are changing and the criminal justice system should be a reflection of public’s shared values today.”
Oregon is the only state in the country that still allows juries to reach split verdicts. Under current law, only 10 of 12 jurors are needed for a conviction in felony criminal cases.
Proponents of split verdicts argue they lead to fewer hung juries and a more efficient criminal justice system.
Opponents say the policy of allowing nonunanimous verdicts is rooted in discrimination and bias against defendants and jurors of color. They also point to the fact that nonunanimous decisions allow for convictions when there’s doubt amongst jurors.
The provision was passed by voters in 1934, a time when racism and bigotry were entrenched in the Oregon’s law, testified Aliza Kaplan, a professor of law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. She wrote a law review article in 2017 chronicling the discriminatory history of Oregon’s law.
“Today, our nonunanimous jury provision undermines the criminal justice system,” Kaplan said Monday. “It continues to silence minority voices today, permitting felony convictions based on incomplete representation of a defendants peers.”
Last year, Louisiana — the only state other than Oregon with nonunanimous juries — voted to do away with the split jury system. Louisiana’s law was passed after the Civil War as part of a series of laws to enshrine white supremacy in the state.
Brad Holbrook was wrongfully convicted by a nonunanimous jury in Yamhill County and served six years in prison for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
“If you hear all the facts and you have a juror that believes a person is not guilty of the crime that alone is inherently reasonable doubt,” he told lawmakers Monday.
Holbrook said unanimous juries won’t lead to guilty people walking the streets. Rather, he said it will leave to a fairer criminal justice system.
In the past, some Oregon district attorneys have supported the current system. But that didn’t happen on Monday.
“ODAA acknowledges that a change to unanimous verdicts could make criminal convictions more challenging for us a prosecutors,” Felton said. “Frankly, members of the committee, we chose these jobs because they are hard. We chose to do the hard things.”
Forty-nine states and the federal government all require unanimity with criminal convictions and acquittals.
“While Oregon has made 10-2 verdicts work we recognize the need for this law change and believe it is time to align our state with the rest of the country and the federal courts,” Felton testified.
The bill lawmakers are debating would refer the issue to voters in 2020. That’s because changes to the Oregon constitution require a vote of the people.