High court asked to end non-unanimous convictions
Friday, February 18, 2011
WASHINGTON -- Almost anywhere in the United States, two holdouts among 12 jurors would prevent a conviction. Unfortunately for Troy Barbour, his trial for attempted murder took place in Louisiana, where he got 48 years in prison after a jury convicted him on a 10-2 vote.
Now Barbour is asking the Supreme Court to end the practice -- used only in Louisiana and Oregon -- that allows defendants to be convicted of some crimes despite disagreement among jurors.
The justices meet privately today after a more than three-week break. Barbour's case is among hundreds they are expected to decide then whether to hear or stay out of. The next list of cases the court has agreed to hear is expected Tuesday.
Nearly 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that nothing in the Constitution bars states from allowing some convictions by non-unanimous verdicts. But even in these two states, first-degree murder, which could bring the death penalty, requires a unanimous verdict.
The court has held that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous verdicts in federal criminal cases.
But in a 1972 case that turned on the vote of Justice Lewis Powell, the court said states were not compelled to follow suit and require unanimous juries in all criminal cases.
Jeffrey Fisher, Barbour's Supreme Court lawyer, said the court's recent decision to apply Second Amendment gun rights to state and federal law undermines the rationale for Powell's approach.
In June, the court ruled, in a challenge to gun control laws in the Chicago area, that protections in the Bill of Rights generally should apply identically to the states and the federal government.
A series of cases dealing with judges' discretion in meting out prison time also supports the argument that state and federal trials should follow the same rules, Fisher said.
In opposition, Louisiana argued that the court should not overrule the 1972 decision, which has guided state law.
More than 80 defendants have been convicted in the past five years, including at least two dozen in the past 16 months by non-unanimous juries in the two states, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said in a brief it filed in support of Barbour.
The justices have rejected previous appeals from defendants in the two states that asked them to require unanimous verdicts in all criminal proceedings.
In Barbour's case, there is no dispute that he shot Donald Baker five times with a stolen snub-nosed revolver. Baker occasionally hired Barbour to do remodeling and construction in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The two men argued over money from time to time, and Barbour claimed that on the day of the shooting, Baker owed him $3,200 for his help in putting a new roof and Sheetrock in a hurricane-damaged home.
Neither man initially helped investigators, but Barbour eventually testified that he acted in self-defense. He said he confronted Baker over the money he claimed he was owed and that Baker pulled a .44-caliber Magnum revolver with a six-inch barrel and fired first. Baker said Barbour acted without provocation.
Prosecutors believed Baker's story and charged Barbour with attempted second-degree murder. Barbour acknowledged he was on parole from prison in his native Michigan, and had gone to New Orleans in violation of his parole because he could not find work at home.
Two jurors questioned the state's case against Barbour, but the other 10 voted to convict.
A Louisiana appeals court upheld the conviction, saying it was bound by the 1972 Supreme Court ruling.
The case is Barbour v. Louisiana, 10-689.