The Puerto Rico Supreme Court issued a majority (5-2) opinion yesterday ruling that jury verdicts must be unanimous to convict defendants in criminal trials, a decision that comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April 2020 that convicting a criminal required unanimity.
The opinion, authored by Associate Justice Erick Kolthoff Caraballo and joined by Associate Justices Roberto Feliberti Cintrón, Edgardo Rivera García, Mildred Pabón Charneco, and Rafael Martínez Torres, stated that, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Evangelisto Ramos V. Louisiana (requiring unanimous jury verdicts to convict a defendant), only the instruction (to a jury) explaining that both guilty and not guilty verdicts must be unanimous will be valid.
Puerto Rico Supreme Court Chief Justice Maite D. Oronoz Rodríguez did not intervene in the case, while Associate Justices Luis Estrella Martínez and Ángel Colón Pérez issued dissenting opinions.
The controversy began on January 4, 2016, in a first-degree murder and attempted murder against Nelson Daniel Centeno case. As part of the trial process, the prosecution requested to instruct the jury that they must issue a unanimous verdict whether to find Centeno guilty or not guilty.
The defendant, through his attorneys, filed a motion in opposition, noting that the Puerto Rico Constitution and the Rules of Criminal Procedure establish the majority proportion (the vote of nine of the 12 members of a jury) and that the rule set forth in Ramos v. Louisiana, and adapted to Pueblo v. Torres Rivera (the first case in Puerto Rico in which the federal Supreme Court’s interpretation of unanimity was implemented), was limited to the requirement of unanimity for guilty verdicts.
After evaluating the arguments of the parties, the Court of First Instance overruled the motion requesting to instruct the jury to issue unanimous verdicts for both declaring a defendant guilty and not guilty, since they understand that “by requiring that a defendant be unanimously found not guilty, we understand that we would be placing him in a position where he would have to prove his innocence.”
The Attorney General then filed a writ of certiorari in the Court of Appeals on certiorari, but the court upheld the Court of First Instance’s determination, so the case ended up before the Supreme Court.
Associate Justice Kolthoff Caraballo stated that the founding fathers established the same decisional proportion for both guilty and not guilty verdicts, and noted that “at no time” did they bifurcate or distinguish the decision of a jury’s deliberation.
He also added that the Ramos v. Lousiana case extended a protection that applies in the states and Puerto Rico regarding guilty verdicts and that, besides, that decision impacts on Section 11, Article II of the Puerto Rico Constitution, since it left without effect a section of the Constitution requesting a minimum of nine of the twelve jurors to issue such verdicts.
He pointed out that since that constitutional clause does not allow for disproportion in decision-making in verdicts, the mandatory nature of the unanimous guilty verdict established in Ramos for the benefit of the defendant, in turn, requires unanimity in the not verdicts in our jurisdiction”.
Kolthoff Caraballo stressed that “through (the) Ramos case as applied in (People v.) Torres Rivera, the guilty verdict issued by a jury must be unanimous, thus avoiding violating the Sixth Amendment of the Federal Constitution. However, in the spectrum of our Supreme Law, not guilty verdicts must maintain the same proportion so as not to violate Section 11 of Article II of the Constitution of Puerto Rico”.