In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down non-unanimous jury convictions in criminal cases in Ramos v. Louisiana. A shameful carryover from the Jim Crow era, Louisiana and Oregon were the last two states that allowed non-unanimous criminal convictions when as many as two jurors believed a defendant was innocent. Overnight, more than 260 cases in Oregon became eligible to seek post-conviction relief for unconstitutional non-unanimous convictions. Housed in the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC) at Lewis & Clark Law School, the Ramos Project is a statewide pro-bono initiative providing legal assistance to those seeking redress. Recent media coverage, including this article from The Oregonian, is helping shed light on the effort.
The launch of the Ramos Project coincided with the national reckoning on the need for justice reform as the Black Lives Matter movement brought systemic inequity issues to the surface once again. As litigation partners Anna Sortun and Ryan Bledsoe were discussing ways to meaningfully contribute to justice reform, they were introduced to the Ramos Project. In their words, “We are very cognizant about the importance of matching our words with our actions. We wanted to refocus our resources and efforts on helping to bring justice to individuals and to fixing the system from within. The Ramos Project was an ideal initiative that we could support with our litigation team.”
Professor Aliza Kaplan, Director of the CJRC, developed the Ramos Project with O’Connor Weber LLC, a private appellate and PCR law firm in Portland. Tonkon Torp has taken on seven Ramos cases and three related clemency cases to date. It could take over a year for the cases to move through the appellate courts. Tonkon’s Ramos team includes partners Ryan Bledsoe, Anna Sortun, Christopher Pallanch, James Hein, and Sherrill Corbett; associates Paul Balmer, Sadie Concepción, Will Gent, Stephanie Grant, Mick Harris, Danny Newman, and Megan Reuther; and paralegals Elizabeth Goodman and Samantha Holly. Each Ramos case has its own team and a different make-up of partners and associates, but the entire cohort gathers periodically to share ideas, research, and progress.
Associate Danny Newman values the importance of the effort. “With litigation partners leading the charge, our effort has the full weight of the firm’s expertise and experience behind it. And we’re not just giving time to our cases, we’re trying to find solutions to get traction on the entire docket of Ramos cases.” To help influence movement on the cases, Tonkon Torp attorneys are working to engage the Oregon Attorney General’s office in a conversation about taking a broad, creative approach to address the constitutional issues at hand and to work more efficiently to clear eligible cases.
“It’s rewarding to be working within this larger effort to make the system better, partnering with CJRC and some of our peer firms,” shared Anna. “Being on the ground has been eye-opening for those of us who don’t normally work in the criminal system—there is so much need for this work. It’s very frustrating that people who were unconstitutionally convicted are still incarcerated and are now facing additional challenges and delays due to COVID-19, evacuations from the 2020 wildfires, and related court delays. It’s added a lot of motivation to try to get these cases resolved.”
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