Oregon is the only state in the country to allow non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal trials—meaning you can be convicted of a crime even if the entire jury isn't in agreement about it. Two bills that would change that are currently moving through the Oregon Legislature—and the issue could soon be up to Oregon voters.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to refer two bills—House Joint Resolution 10 and House Bill 2615—to the House Rules Committee, which would likely be the last stop before they reach the House floor for a full vote. HJR 10 would put a constitutional amendment banning non-unanimous jury criminal convictions (also called split-jury decisions) on the 2020 statewide ballot; HB 2615 is a housekeeping bill that would amend a conflicting Oregon law, should that ballot measure pass.
Under current Oregon law, most criminal convictions require the support of just 10 out of 12 jurors. A murder conviction requires either 11 guilty votes or a unanimous jury decision, depending on the severity of the charge. After Louisiana voted to overturn their own non-unanimous jury rules last November, Oregon became the only state in the nation to continue to allow them.
Criminal justice advocates argue that split-jury convictions open the door for racial discrimination—in Louisiana, the policy had its roots in Jim Crow-era legislation—and that they make it too easy to convict potentially innocent people of crimes.
Oregon’s split-jury rules date back to a 1934 ballot measure that passed with 58 percent of the vote. The campaign for that measure included xenophobic and racist rhetoric, including this quote from a 1933 Oregonian editorial:
“The increased urbanization of American life and the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe, of people untrained in the jury system, have combined to make the jury of twelve increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory.”
The US Supreme Court indicated two weeks ago that it intends to hear a case concerning a split-jury conviction during its upcoming session. The case involves a Louisiana man who was sentenced by a split jury in 2016, before Louisiana's recent vote, and the court could decide that non-unanimous convictions are unconstitutional. Such a ruling could render an Oregon 2020 ballot measure redundant.