Washington (AFP) - In the film "12 Angry Men," a teen defendant is found not guilty of killing his father because the jurors cannot reach a unanimous decision. In reality, a split jury is enough in some US states.
It is this issue that the US Supreme Court took up on Monday at the opening of its new session -- a term that will feature a variety of blockbuster cases on abortion, immigration and transgender rights.
With Justice Clarence Thomas absent, eight of nine justices examined the case of Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted in Louisiana of fatally stabbing a woman, Trinece Fedison, in 2014 and leaving her body in a trash can.
Only 10 of 12 jurors voted to convict. Ramos denies killing her.
Louisiana and Oregon are the only states that allow convictions for major crimes by split juries.
Ramos lived near the scene of the crime and said the victim had had consensual sex with him, but later left with two other men.
His DNA was found on the trash can, but he used the receptacle for his own rubbish. No other DNA evidence was found to incriminate him.
In his trial, 10 jurors said he was guilty but two expressed their doubts. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In other states, the split jury would have resulted in a mistrial.
His attorneys say that Louisiana's statute stems from the American South's segregationist past, and was a way to diminish the impact of blacks serving on juries.
In 1879, the Supreme Court said blacks could not be excluded as jurors on the basis of race.
Louisiana then authorized convictions if nine of 12 jurors said the defendant was guilty. In 1973, that number was raised to 10.
"The rule in question here is rooted in... racism, rooted in a desire, apparently, to diminish the voices of black jurors in the late 1890s," Justice Brett Kavanaugh said during Monday's arguments.
A referendum adopted last year ended this anomaly for all convictions after January 1, 2019, but did not apply retroactively, meaning Ramos's conviction stood.
Louisiana has asked the court not to intervene.
"We have 32,000 people that are currently serving time for serious crimes, and each of these convictions would be subject to challenge," Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill told the court.
The case could have wider ramifications -- in Oregon on the West Coast, 10 jurors are also enough to convict, except in murder cases.
Lawmakers in Oregon are looking at reforms, but certain prosecutors have expressed concerns, fearing it will become more difficult for them to secure convictions.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court heard a death penalty case -- on whether states can bar suspects from using the so-called "insanity defense" -- and a case on patent law.
On Tuesday, the court takes up a hot-button issue -- whether an anti-discrimination law related to workplace issues protects gay and transgender employees.