Hayes has always maintained that he shot Smith in self-defense during the confrontation that erupted over the crash.
The new legal precedent that helped Hayes was established when the Supreme Court overturned the conviction and life prison term of Evangelisto Ramos, who was found guilty of killing a New Orleans prostitute after the jury voted 10-2, which was enough at the time to convict under state law.
The Supreme Court has long held that non-unanimous verdicts are forbidden under the Sixth Amendment in federal criminal trials. The court has ruled that almost all of its protections apply to the states under the 14th Amendment, one of the post-Civil War amendments, according to The New York Times. It would seem a small step, then, to conclude that the Sixth Amendment bars non-unanimous verdicts in state criminal trials, too.
But a confusing 1972 decision, Apodaca v. Oregon, complicated matters. The vote in the case was 4-1-4, and only Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who cast the controlling vote, said federal and state cases could be treated differently, the Times reported.
Critics said the Louisiana law had been used to find Black defendants guilty even when one or two Black jurors disagreed.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, agreed, saying the Louisiana and Oregon laws were rooted in racism.
According to the Times, in 1898, after the Supreme Court ruled that states could not exclude Black people from juries, Louisiana held a constitutional convention whose purpose, as the chairman of its judiciary committee put it, was “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done.”
The state constitution adopted at that convention replaced a unanimity requirement with one that said the votes of nine jurors out of 12 were enough to convict defendants of non-capital felonies. The point, Gorsuch wrote, quoting an earlier decision, was “to ensure that African American juror service would be meaningless.” (In 1973, the constitution was amended to require 10 jurors to agree.)
“Courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their states’ respective non-unanimity rules,” Gorsuch wrote.
As Gorsuch noted, Louisiana had adopted the rule of non-unanimous juries in 1898 at a state convention established to maintain “the supremacy of the white race.” In the Reconstruction era, Southern states were told they may not exclude all Blacks from juries, but the Louisiana rule allowed for convicting Black defendants even if one or two Blacks refused to go along.
Gorsuch’s opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh concurred in the result but for different reasons.
Justice Samuel Alito said in dissent that the court should not overturn the 1972 precedent that allowed for non-unanimous juries, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan agreed.
Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.