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Supreme Court Reverses Criminal Conviction for Racial Bias by Juror

by Derek Gilna

In a decision sure to reverberate throughout the nation’s criminal courts, in March 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Colorado defendant charged with sexual battery due to a juror’s racially discriminatory comments during deliberations. According to Justice Anthony Kennedy, “Racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns.”

In a majority opinion joined by five of the eight justices currently on the Court, Justice Kennedy wrote, “An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.”

Jurors are normally inoculated from having their decisions scrutinized and overturned pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which sets forth a broad no-impeachment policy, with only limited exceptions, to provide finality to jury verdicts.

However, many jurisdictions have recognized exceptions for juror comments that exhibit racial bias during deliberations, and three federal Courts of Appeal have held there is a constitutional exception based on evidence of racial bias.

Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez was charged in Colorado state court with the sexual assault of two teenage sisters. A jury was empanelled and the jurors were asked whether they could be fair and impartial. All responded affirmatively. Peña-Rodriguez was found guilty of unlawful sexual contact and harassment, sentenced to probation and required to register as a sex offender.

According to the Supreme Court, two jurors disclosed that “during deliberations, another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness.... According to the two jurors, [that juror] “told the other jurors that he ‘believed the defendant was guilty because, in [his] experience as an ex-law enforcement officer, Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women.’” The unnamed juror also reportedly said, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

Colorado state courts have their own version of Rule 606(b) that also limits jury impeachment, and a divided panel of the state’s Court of Appeals held the biased juror’s statements did not fall within one of the enumerated exceptions to that rule – a decision affirmed by the Colorado Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari.

The Court observed that addressing the issue of racial bias in the jury system “is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts ... the Court now holds that where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.”

 “In this case the alleged statements by a juror were egregious and unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias,” the Court noted; the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court was therefore reversed, making Peña-Rodriguez eligible for a new trial. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito issued dissenting opinions. See: Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 1574 (Mar. 6, 2017). 

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