Many in Oregon are still in prison serving convictions by unconstitutional Jim Crow Juries, a legal lynching.
We have all seen the powerful images of statues and monuments once-erected to disgracefully honor those who oppressed marginalized communities. People like Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders, Christopher Columbus, and others have toppled to the ground through the efforts of community power. We have all seen crowds of communities, organizers, local leaders, and those who have experienced the continuing pain of white supremacy, celebrating a sense that we are finally moving forward, that some form of awakening has occurred. But as these monuments come crashing down, the institutional monuments built alongside them must also be destroyed.
Throughout the country institutional monuments still stand tall: racist legal monuments instituted long ago that continue to burden marginalized communities. In Oregon, one of those monuments–non-unanimous juries–was erected in 1934 during a rise of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia pushed by the KKK and like-minded racists. The impact of these laws still continues to imprison Black people disproportionately to this day.
Most people think of the KKK and other Jim Crow era racists as exacting physical violence and intimidation. But in 1934, these groups followed Louisiana’s lead to pass a law that would make Oregon the only other state in the union that allowed people accused of crimes to be convicted even if up to two people on the jury thought they were innocent. What this meant in practice, intent, and impact, is that already predominantly white juries could overrule, silence, and ignore any minority opinion they wanted. Thus, white protestant men could convict whoever they wanted to, often sending them to prison. Louisiana and Oregon were tied together by the unenviable distinction of being the only states that allowed this unfair and unconstitutional practice. The law worked as intended and plagued these communities for decades.
Yes, for over 80 years, non-unanimous juries had exactly their intended effect: only certain juror’s voices were silenced, prosecutors could easily secure convictions, and those convictions were disproportionately of Black Oregonians. In 2020, there was a brief moment of light and a sense that this legal monument might be toppled forever when the Supreme Court of the United States finally stated the obvious that Oregon’s non-unanimous jury law had racist origins and was unconstitutional in Ramos v. Louisiana. By this time even the Republican stronghold of Louisiana, in the deep south, had already rid itself of this racist practice thus leaving Oregon alone in this distinctive form of racial injustice.
After serving 28 and a half years for a crime he didn’t commit, Calvin Duncan, a famous jailhouse lawyer spent the next near-decade of his newfound freedom fighting to get the US Supreme Court to hear the case and strike this law down. On his 23rd try, he succeeded, and even the most conservative of Justices–Gorsuch and Kavanaugh–acknowledged the law was rooted in racism and contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Both of these justices and the state of Louisiana have now firmly outflanked Oregon on progressivism as it relates to this law. In short, despite being a Democratic stronghold and enjoying an often unearned progressive reputation, both Louisiana and Trump-appointed justices are now in a position to scold Oregon on this racist practice, and unwillingness to do anything to rectify these legal lynchings.
Today, nearly one year after the Supreme Court decision, Oregon’s marginalized communities remain burdened by this racist law. Many are still in prison despite racist and unconstitutional convictions. Many are outside of prison but living with the burden of a conviction which can impact every aspect of their lives. Why? Oregon’s refusal to reckon with its racist past, ability to simply ignore the BIPOC communities it impacts, and refusal of elected leaders to simply get out of the way of those fighting for justice.
The Supreme Court decision only applied to future cases and those who arbitrarily happened to be in a direct appeal at the time, yet Oregon’s leaders refuse to use their power to provide new, free and fair trials to all those still imprisoned by a legal lynching by a Jim Crow jury. While our state’s most powerful attorney — Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum — hailed the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Oregon to move beyond this “embarrassment to our otherwise progressive state,” she also argued to the Supreme Court that their decision should not be applied retroactively–to past cases–because of the burden on prosecutors, who would have to retry cases before an actual constitutional jury. Nevermind the burden of sitting in a cage for years or being burdened by a criminal conviction only because the KKK and like-minded groups made it so. Yes some prosecutors will need to retry cases and those public servants will have to do some more work, but at what point does the fact that human beings are in cages because of an unconstitutional law outweigh the inconvenience of those being paid by taxpayers?
How racist is too racist? We would all agree a lynch mob that “convicted” a Black person in the 1920s is a conviction that should not stand. We should also all agree that Jim Crow juries are a bridge too far. This is not a question of opening the gates for all, this is a simple request that those still burdened by this racist legacy be afforded the fair trial, untainted by a Jim Crow jury that they never received. There is no excuse. There is no reason. Oregon must do the right thing now.
If you want to get involved in the efforts to change this, there are three immediate steps you can take.
- Sign up for updates at stillinprison.org and/or ask your organization to join the growing coalition of groups who are standing up against this injustice.
- Sign this petition to ask Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to do the right thing.
- Share this article and any other information you find on non-unanimous juries, reach out to your representatives, and spread the word!