United States Supreme Court Reverses and Remands Case of Alleged Racial Bias

–by Taylor J. Hoy

Citation: Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado, 580 U.S. ____ (2017); Pena-Rodriguez v. People, 350 P.3d 287 (Colo. 2015).

Abstract: Pena-Rodriguez examines Colorado’s interpretation of Colorado Rule of Evidence (“CRE”) 606(b) as it applies to affidavits that claim jurors made racially biased statements during deliberations.

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During trial, the jury found petitioner, Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez guilty on one count of sexual contact without consent and two counts of harassment. Two weeks following the conviction, two jurors informed petitioner’s counsel that “some of the other jurors expressed a bias towards [Petitioner] and the alibi witness because they were Hispanic.” In a motion for a new trial, Petitioner submitted affidavits from two jurors, M.M. and L.T., alleging that juror H.C. made several racially biased statements during deliberations. Ultimately, the trial court denied petitioner’s motion based on the contention that CRE 606(b) barred further inquiry into juror members’ bias during deliberations.

After receiving affirmation from both the Colorado State Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Colorado, the Supreme Court of the United States granted a petition for writ of certiorari in the matter.

In its decision on March 6, 2017, the Court focused on whether CRE 606(b) may bar evidence of racial bias to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. The majority held 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.” The no-impeachment rule assures “jurors that, once their verdict has been entered, it will not later be called into question based on the comments or conclusions they expressed during deliberations.” The Court said that trial courts must find a “showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict.” Furthermore, to succeed, statements must show that the “racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.” Here, the statements made by juror H.C. were “egregious and unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias.”

Justice Kennedy, writing on behalf of the majority, focused the opinion on the importance of the jury as the central foundation of our justice system and democracy and the right to a fair and impartial jury. In ordering the decision, he highlighted the importance of confronting egregious cases, amplifying the need to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination as a nation and mature as a legal system, and understanding and implementing lessons of history.

Justice Thomas and Justice Alito wrote separate dissents. Justice Thomas dissented because the Court’s decision is incompatible with the text of the Amendment and the decision to curtail or abandon the no-impeachment rule should be left to the political process. Justice Alito’s dissent, also signed by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, argued that the Court’s decision is well-intentioned, but feared that it would be difficult to limit the Court’s ruling. “Although the Court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled grounds for preventing the expansion of today’s holding.”

Posted in Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Legal Pulse