Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court reopened dozens of Oregon criminal cases that appeared decided.
Justices handed down a ruling in Ramos v. Louisiana on April 20, effectively overturning a provision of the Oregon Constitution that allowed juries to convict on felony charges without a unanimous vote.
Oregon was the last state in the union to allow non-unanimous jury verdicts. For the past seven decades, Oregon courts required just 10 of 12 jurors to convict a defendant of all felonies except murder.
Now that the provision has been overturned, hundreds of convictions resulting from 10-2 or 11-1 jury verdicts could be reversed. This puts defendants convicted by non-unanimous juries, their families, and victims of crimes in a state of limbo. Some cases may need to be retried.
Robert Harris, executive director of the Washington County Defense Attorneys Consortium, says the ability to retry a case will depend on outside factors like availability of witnesses and how much of a sentence the defendant has already served. In some cases, the district attorney might offer a new plea deal.
"There's just a lot of moving pieces to how this all will resolve," Harris says. "It's going to be a case-by-case decision by the district attorney's office."
The path to unanimous verdicts in Oregon has been a long one, and had to overcome historical resistance from prosecutors—and a last-minute attempt to block it by the state's top lawyer, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
Last August, Rosenblum filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court not to overrule its 1972 decision in Apodaca v. Oregon, which enabled the state to convict without unanimous verdicts.
Rosenblum made a statement at the time explaining her position: Although she supported requiring unanimous verdicts, she did not support a decision that could invalidate previous convictions and require the state to go back decades retrying cases. In other words, she wanted the change to be forward-looking only—not to look back.
Yet the day the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Ramos, Rosenblum issued a press release hailing the ruling: "This is good news!" Rosenblum said April 20. "It is an embarrassment to our otherwise progressive state that we are the only state in the country with a law in our constitution that allows criminal convictions without juror unanimity." (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the owner of WW's parent company.)
In an email to WW, Rosenblum disputed that she has made inconsistent statements on non-unanimous jury verdicts. She said she fully supports the Ramos decision, but that the ruling does not address every legal issue, such as what to do about previous convictions.
"That is the issue we flagged in our amicus brief," Rosenblum tells WW. "We are painstakingly reviewing hundreds of cases to determine how we will recommend they be handled in the review process."
In fact, the outcome Rosenblum wanted to avert is happening. The Oregon Supreme Court is reviewing 74 verdicts dating back to 2015 that were affirmed by 10 or 11 jurors. (This is the first batch of Ramos-affected cases the court will review. More cases will be identified going forward.)
WW combed through those first six-dozen cases, which range from the atrocious to the mundane. Some detail awful stories of predatory, serial rape, while others involve lesser charges like unlawful possession of a firearm and reckless driving. Regardless of where the cases fall on the moral spectrum, the 74 verdicts the Oregon Supreme Court is reviewing may now be considered unconstitutional, according to the highest court in the country. Here are three notable cases.
State of Oregon v. Robert Lee Chaffee
When Chaffee drove to Richard Hoglen's house in Phoenix, Ore., on Oct. 5, 2016, he was angry. Standing outside of Hoglen's front gate, Chaffee started yelling obscenities and accusing Hoglen of molesting his children and grandchildren. Hoglen blocked the entrance and moved closer to his steel farm gate to take a picture of Chaffee's license plate.
"[Chaffee] gunned the truck and turned down a dirt road leading away from the property, but did a U-turn and headed back toward the victim, who was still behind the gate," court records say. "Defendant plowed into the gate without stopping, breaking it off of its hinges; the gate ended up on the victim's legs and defendant's truck was on top of the gate. The victim was dragged several feet through gravel."
Hoglen, age 47, was severely injured but survived. Chaffee, now 66, was charged with attempted murder and two counts of assault. In April 2017, a Jackson County jury acquitted him of the attempted murder charge, and handed down a non-unanimous verdict convicting him of the two assault charges. Chaffee was sentenced to 90 months in prison.
State of Oregon v. Johnny Eugene Johnson
Between September 2004 and May 2015, Johnson sexually abused three children—two under the age of 14 and one under the age of 12. Yamhill County prosecutors in 2016 charged Johnson, now 49, with three counts of rape, 12 counts of sex abuse and six counts of sodomy.
The earliest assault described in court records was of a girl who was 5 or 6 years old at the time. "One night, [victim] and her sister became afraid of the dark and wanted to sleep with defendant," court records say. "Defendant said the girls could not get into his bed unless they took off their underwear." The documents go on to detail multiple disturbing encounters over a period of several years.
Years after that incident, in 2014, one of the victims disclosed it to a therapist, who reported it to the Department of Human Services. "While intoxicated, defendant touched her 'inappropriately,'" court records say, "but [victim] did not remember the event until she was in the fifth grade and did not believe it really happened until she talked to her sister about it a year after that."
A Yamhill County jury in 2017 convicted Johnson of three counts of rape and eight counts of sex abuse. He was sentenced to 710 months, or almost 60 years, in prison. Eight of the 11 counts resulted from non-unanimous jury votes (court documents do not specify which counts), meaning Johnson's sentence could be reduced significantly by Ramos.
State of Oregon v. Kevin John Hunt
In June 2017, Multnomah County sheriff's deputies responded to a call about a burglary at the Harvest Christian Church in Troutdale. Police arrived and located the suspect, Kevin John Hunt, who ran behind a nearby apartment complex.
The officer chased Hunt, now 56, and ordered him to show his hands. The officer observed Hunt was holding a large knife. Hunt followed orders to drop the knife and got down on the ground. As deputies handcuffed him, they observed a handgun near Hunt. It was loaded.
"The handgun was not on the ground moments before when [the officer] cleared the area in pursuit of the defendant," the probable cause affidavit says.
Hunt, who had a prior criminal history, was charged with felony possession of a handgun, but not the burglary for which he was being chased. In May 2018, a Multnomah County jury voted 10-2 to convict him. "No one had seen defendant touch the gun and his fingerprints were not on it," his attorneys wrote in a brief filed in January. Hunt was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Non-Unanimous Verdicts by the Numbers
The 74 cases now being reviewed by the Oregon Supreme Court offer a window into who was convicted in Oregon without a unanimous verdict. The number of black defendants was disproportionate. The most common charge to result in a non-unanimous guilty verdict was sexual abuse—it's often difficult for juries to agree in such cases.
The average sentence length is 117 (not accounting for concurrent sentences). The average age of the defendant is 46. All but two of the 74 defendants are men.