By Christopher Zoukis
Dividing sharply by a 5-3 margin the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major new ruling March 6th that evidence of racial bias affecting a jury verdict may in some cases overcome longstanding rules shielding jury deliberations from court review.
In Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, Miguel Peña-Rodriguez had been convicted of sex offenses against two teenage girls, and unsuccessfully sought to persuade a Colorado trial court to give him a new trial, citing evidence from two jurors that another juror had made anti-Hispanic remarks about the defendant and a defense witness during jury deliberations.
The state court refused to overturn the verdict based on state evidence rules generally barring evidence of jury-room deliberations. But the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by four liberal justices (Breyer, Ginsberg, Kagan and Sotomayor), reversed and sent the case back to the state court to reconsider the case in light of the testimony of the two jurors, who reported racially charged remarks.
Kennedy’s opinion began by noting traditional rules adopted by state and federal courts to prevent second-guessing of jury deliberations, but for the first time ruled that the court’s “imperative to purge racial prejudice” from the administration of justice might require creating an exception to the general rule against court review of how the jury reached its verdict.
In this case, lawyers for Peña-Rodriguez had obtained statements from two jurors that another juror, a former law enforcement officer, had voiced the view that Mexican men were almost always “guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls” and believed “they could do whatever they wanted with women.”
Calling those statements “egregious” and “unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias,” Kennedy’s opinion said the trial court should have weighed whether the statements had violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. If so, a juror’s racist comments could justify overturning a verdict and ordering a new trial.
But three justices strongly dissented. A opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas called the majority opinion “well-intentioned,” but argued that opening up jury deliberations to later attack would create serious problems, including making jurors more guarded and less honest in their deliberations, subjecting jurors to harassment by convicted defendants seeking evidence of prejudice to support appeals, and making citizens less willing to serve on juries. Alito’s dissent charged the court’s majority “barely bothers” to address those serious policy issues.
The court’s majority opinion did not decide that Peña-Rodriguez will get a new trial, or even spell out in detail how the trial court should go about making that determination, beyond saying the trial judge should investigate, question the former jurors, and then decide whether a new trial is needed.
In fact, the majority opinion cautioned not every “offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility” would justify overturning a verdict and ordering a new trial. Instead, to reach those results, the trial court must find the statements of at least one juror during deliberations showed overt racial bias that seriously called into doubt the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations by showing racial bias “was a significant motivating factor” of the conviction.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.