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Johnson v. Louisiana


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400 U.S. 356 (1972), argued 1 Mar. 1971, reargued 10 Jan. 1972, decided 22 May 1972 by vote of 5 to 4; White for the Court, Blackmun and Powell concurring, Douglas, Brennan, Marshall, and Stewart in dissent. The issues in Johnson, and its companion case Apodaca v. Oregon (1972), which had been left unresolved by Duncan v. Louisiana (1968), were whether the Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection clauses required states to observe jury unanimity in criminal cases, as is required in the federal courts. A jury had convicted Johnson of robbery by a 9-to-3 vote. Since Johnson's trial began before Duncan was decided, and that ruling had not been applied retroactively, its Sixth Amendment protections were not available.

Johnson contended that he had been denied due process because a non-unanimous verdict meant the reasonable-doubt standard of guilt had not been met. The fact that three jurors disagreed with the verdict indicated doubt, and the nine-person majority could not have voted conscientiously in favor of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Justice Byron White responded that it was an unsupported assumption that the jury majority would not weigh carefully the arguments of dissenting jurors. Reasonable doubt was not ignored merely because three jurors disagreed. “[The] fact remains,” wrote White, “that nine jurors—a substantial majority of the jury—were convinced by the evidence” (p. 362). The doubts of three jurors were simply not enough to impeach the jury's decision.

Because Louisiana required unanimity in twelve-person juries hearing capital cases and in five-person juries in other serious crimes, Johnson also argued that the less-then-unanimous verdict in his case was a denial of equal protection of the law. The Court, however, found nothing invidious in the varying jury classifications. Requiring the number of jurors who must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt to increase with the seriousness of the crime and the severity of the punishment was a reasonable legislative judgment.

The several dissenters argued that the Sixth Amendment unanimity rule should be incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment. Alternatively, they claimed that it was a fundamental due process right.

Charles H. Sheldon

Subjects: Law.


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