Sixth Amendment

Jailhouse lawyer who fought nonunanimous jury verdicts helped propel issue to Supreme Court

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A former jailhouse lawyer in Louisiana who had a 10th grade education identified an issue that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court: whether it is constitutional to allow nonunanimous verdicts in state criminal trials.

Calvin Duncan, a former Angola inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, has been raising the unanimity issue for decades, the New York Times reports. He tried about two dozen times to get the U.S. Supreme Court to grant cert, to no avail.

The Supreme Court agreed to decide the issue in March in a case filed by lawyer G. Ben Cohen, who credits Duncan with identifying and pressing the issue.

“From well before I was involved,” Cohen told the New York Times, “Calvin understood that this was a winning legal issue—how to frame it, raise it and challenge the nonunanimous law.”

“The lessons that Calvin taught me were not just about the law,” Cohen told the Times. “They were about not giving up.”

Despite his enthusiasm for the issue, Duncan was convicted of murder by a unanimous jury and sentenced to life in prison. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence. He was released from prison in 2011 after the Louisiana Supreme Court found that prosecutors withheld evidence in his case, and he pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

He has graduated from Tulane University and hopes to go to law school.

The pending case, Ramos v. Louisiana, asks the Supreme Court to overrule a 1972 decision and hold that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimity.

Louisiana allowed 10-2 convictions until voters approved a state constitutional amendment that took effect in January that requires unanimity. The change does not apply retroactively, however.

If the Supreme Court was to agree with the position pressed so many years by Duncan, hundreds of men could be saved from life in prison, according to Emily Maw, a lawyer with the Innocence Project New Orleans who spoke with the New York Times.

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