• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that convictions based on nonunanimous jury verdicts in state criminal trials do not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the common law tradition, criminal convictions were based on the unanimous agreement of twelve-member juries. In 1968 the Supreme Court required states to provide jury trials in criminal cases, but it did not specify whether all of the common-law requirements were applicable to the states. In Williams v. Florida[case]Williams v. Florida[Williams v. Florida] (1970), the Court approved the use of six-person juries in noncapital state trials. The state of Louisiana had a statute that allowed convictions based on nine jurors out of twelve in noncapital cases. Oregon had a similar law. The Court considered the constitutionality of the Louisiana law in the Johnson case, and it reviewed the Oregon law in the companion case of Apodaca v. Oregon[case]Apodaca v. Oregon[Apodaca v. Oregon] (1972).Due process, substantiveJury, trial by;Johnson v. Louisiana[Johnson v. Louisiana]Due process, substantive

By a 5-4 vote, a divided Court surprised many observers when it departed from the unanimity rule. In a plurality opinion, Justice Byron R. White argued that nine out of twelve votes was a “substantial majority” and that the “disagreement of three jurors does not alone establish reasonable doubt.” Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., joined the majority ruling in regard to state trials, but he argued in a concurring opinion that the Sixth Amendment, based on history and precedent, required a unanimous jury in federal trials. The four dissenters insisted that the same standards should apply to federal and state trials and that a nonunanimous verdict was inconsistent with the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

The Johnson and Apodaca decisions, in view of Williams, left observers wondering about the relationship between jury size and the unanimity principle. The Court met that issue in Burch v. Louisiana[case]Burch v. Louisiana[Burch v. Louisiana] (1979), requiring that unanimous verdicts are required in six-member juries.

Due process, procedural

Incorporation doctrine

Jury, trial by

Jury composition and size

Sixth Amendment

Williams v. Florida

Categories: History