Supreme Court: Racist Comments During Jury Deliberation Warrant Judicial Review

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 07, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Generally speaking, jury deliberations are considered a "black box," into which courts are loathe to peer. The sanctity and secrecy of the jury room predates the Constitution itself, and courts have refused to review jury verdicts even in the face of claims of juror bias or drug or alcohol abuse in order to foster "full and vigorous discussion" of the case at hand.

But racist remarks, according to a new ruling from the Supreme Court, may violate a defendant's right to a fair trial and therefore require judicial review. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed -- including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered -- is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts."

Over the Line

The underlying case involved Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez, who had been accused of groping women at the Colorado racetrack where he worked (charges he denied, claiming it was a case of mistaken identity) and ultimately convicted in 2007 of one misdemeanor count of unlawful sexual contact and two misdemeanor counts of harassment. Soon after the verdict, two jurors told Peña Rodriguez's attorneys that another juror, a former law enforcement officer, said he had seen numerous similar cases and made disparaging remarks about Mexican men.

"I think he did it because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want," the man, identified only as H.C., told the other jurors, adding that, in his experience, "nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls." H.C. also allegedly told 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."

Under Review

Peña Rodriguez asked for a new trial, but the court refused, citing a Colorado rule prohibiting jurors from testifying as to statements made during deliberations and what's known as the federal "no-impeachment rule" which bars jurors from undermining or discrediting their verdicts.

But the Supreme Court disagreed, finding an exception to the no-impeachment rule when a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant. In those cases, trials courts can consider the evidence of the juror's statement whether it violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a trial "by an impartial jury." These judicial examinations, the Court ruled, are necessary "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."

"The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination," Justice Kennedy wrote. "The progress that has already been made underlies the Court's insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system."

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