The Oregon Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of a Black man who was convicted by a non-unanimous jury in Portland in 2016.
The Thursday ruling follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision in April that found non-unanimous jury convictions in state criminal courts violate the Constitution. That ended the practice in Oregon, which was the last state in the country to allow for 10-2 and 11-1 decisions in felony, non-murder cases.
Non-unanimous juries, which date back more than 85 years in Oregon, are rooted in discrimination and racism; they make it easier to convict defendants of color and also silence perspectives of jurors of color.
The Oregon Supreme Court’s rulings in the case of Olan Williams this week could have larger implications for many of the hundreds of similar non-unanimous jury verdicts currently under review. Williams declined to comment through his attorney.
“The Williams case is the non-unanimous jury rule at its worst,” said Aliza Kaplan, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland who has worked to end the practice. “This is one of the many examples of this law that was created due to discrimination applying in a discriminatory way today.”
In 2018, voters in Louisiana scrapped its non-unanimous jury policy. For more than 100 years, that state's Jim Crow-era law sought to bolster white authority over Black people and other communities of color.
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.
In July 2016, Williams was convicted on one count of sodomy by a Multnomah County jury.
Despite the fact two jurors disagreed and voted against his conviction, Williams was found guilty. One of the jurors who voted to acquit Williams was also Black.
“I do believe he was denied a jury of his peers,” juror Cash Spencer told OPB in 2018. “My voice was kind of silenced because the majority, which was not his peers, felt the other way.”
Williams was sentenced to 100 months behind bars and 20 years of post-prison supervision, minus time served.
Even in denying him a new trial, the judge overseeing the case wrote a 32-page opinion noting the biases of non-unanimous juries. Most judges write a single sentence when denying a defendant a new trial.
“If one wanted to craft a system to silence the average number of non-white jurors on an Oregon jury, one could not create a more efficient system than 10-2,” the judge wrote.
Williams served less than a year of his prison sentence. He was released pending appeal, in part because efforts were underway to change the state’s non-unanimous jury law.
“This is an example of why people are out in the streets,” said Marc Brown, Williams’ attorney and Oregon’s chief deputy public defender for appeals. “This is an example of how our legal system has this structural bias baked into it.”
Brown said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling shows that the criminal justice system is capable of change.
“But I think we need to identify and acknowledge our system has these biases,” he said.
Williams' case is now back before the Multnomah County District Attorney. A spokesperson said it's too early to know how it will proceed, but would discuss options with officers at the Portland Police Bureau as well as any victims.
Prosecutors could drop the charges or could choose to retry Williams. If they do that, they will need a unanimous jury verdict to convict.