–by Melanie-Ann DeLancey
Source: Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 580 U.S. ____ (2017).
Abstract: On March 6, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial comments made during jury deliberations can violate a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
Facts and Procedural History
Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez was accused of groping teenage girls while at his workplace. Pena-Rodriguez maintained that it was a case of mistaken identity and that he did not touch the girls. Ultimately, the jury convicted Pena-Rodriguez of one misdemeanor count of unlawful sexual contact and two misdemeanor counts of harassment. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the felony charge of attempted sexual assault of a child.
It was reported that during deliberations, a juror stated, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.” The juror went further to say, “nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.” His defense attorney learned of the comments after the verdict. When the defense attorneys requested that the judge investigate whether these comments prevented their client from receiving a fair trial, the judge declined. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the decision. Both federal and state law precluded challenges to statements made during jury deliberations.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. In a 5-3 decision, Justice Kennedy stated that when a juror makes clear statements that indicate he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires the trial court be allowed to consider the evidence of the statement, regardless of the no-impeachment rule. 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.” Racial bias and animus in jury deliberation taints the legal system and does not ensure equal treatment under the law to all criminal defendants. Not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar to allow inquiry. There must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements that exhibit overt racial bias that “cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict.”
While the Court recognized that all forms of improper bias poses challenges to the trial process, the Court does not address those in this decision. The Court found that a sound basis existed to treat racial bias differently—to be treated with added precaution. “A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including . . . after the verdict has been entered—is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.”
In his dissent, Justice Alito found that the majority’s decision invites the harms that the no-impeachment rule was put in effect to prevent. The finality of verdicts will be undermined, harassment and annoyance by litigants seeking to challenge the verdict will increase, and the overall stability of the trial system will be called into question. Alito further penned that the decision would inhibit full and frank discussion in the jury room.