SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that not guilty verdicts in criminal cases must be unanimous, marking a significant change in how jury trials are conducted in the U.S. territory.
For nearly seven decades, Puerto Rico’s constitution has allowed a minimum of nine jurors for such verdicts.
The 5-2 decision comes more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jury verdicts must be unanimous to convict in criminal trials, a decision that affected Louisiana, Oregon and Puerto Rico, which had not required unanimity for a guilty verdict.
Though that decision specifically concerned unanimity in guilty verdicts, it sparked discussion in Puerto Rico about how the island’s judicial system should handle not guilty verdicts.
In their decision, the majority of judges on Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court said justice demands unanimity also be required for not guilty verdicts, to maintain the same decision proportion for both guilty and not guilty verdicts as required by Puerto Rico’s constitution.
Two judges dissented. One accused his colleagues of distortion and the other said the decision ignores constitutional protections.
The dissenters also argued that a defendant's culpability is being judged, not their innocence.
“Why ... is it necessary that a jury see itself entirely convinced of an absence of culpability that is already presumed and is up to the state to defeat?” wrote Judge Luis Estrella Martínez.
The ruling stems from a 2016 case involving a Puerto Rico man accused of first-degree murder and other charges.
Puerto Rico’s Tribunal of First Instance held a hearing last November to talk about jury instructions for his case. Prosecutors requested the jury be told unanimity was required for a guilty or not guilty verdict based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling the previous year. The defense attorney disputed that position, noting that Puerto Rico’s constitution states that only a minimum of nine jurors are required for a not guilty verdict.
The tribunal found in favor of the defense attorney, and prosecutors took the issue to Puerto Rico’s Court of Appeals, which upheld the tribunal’s ruling.
“In a criminal procedure, the only thing that is being judged is the culpability of the accused, not their innocence. Their innocence is presumed at all times. It makes no sense to have to prove something that is presumed until it is defeated with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” the appeals court stated.
Prosecutors then appealed to the island's Supreme Court.
The defense attorney argued the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling applied only to guilty verdicts, while prosecutors argued that Puerto Rico’s constitution does not allow a different number of jurors to be required for a guilty versus a not guilty verdict.
The high court decided the constitution does require the same standards for each kind of verdict.
Legal experts said they disagreed with Thursday's ruling.
“I feel this is a mistake that doesn’t think about administrative and technical issues,” said Wanda Valentín, former president of the association’s criminal law commission.
Puerto Rico required a jury's 12 members to unanimously agree on finding a defendant guilty or not guilty until 1948, when the law was amended to allow either verdict to be based on a majority of at least nine jurors. The amendment was made at a time when the government was prosecuting leaders seeking Puerto Rico's independence, which made it easier for them to be found guilty, Valentín said. The provision was added to the island's constitution in 1952.
A request that the court reconsider its ruling can be submitted. If the court denied such a petition, the last recourse would be the U.S. Supreme Court.