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If Racial Bias Taints Jury, Secrecy Rule Doesn't Apply

Under federal rules of procedure, there is what's known as the "no-impeachment rule" which prohibits jurors from undermining or discrediting their verdicts. The rule is designed to provide finality to jury verdicts as well as promote "full and vigorous discussion" by jurors without fear that they will be harassed after being discharged or summoned to recount their deliberations.

Jury deliberations are essentially a "black box" in that they are free from judicial review in almost all cases. But the Supreme Court added one more exception to that rule, permitting judges to consider evidence of a juror's racial statements and whether they violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a trial "by an impartial jury."

The Juror

Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez had been accused of groping women at a racetrack where he worked and denied the allegations, claiming it was a case of mistaken identity. Ultimately he was cleared on some felony counts, but convicted in 2007 of three misdemeanor counts relating to those charges, but discovered that one juror, a former law enforcement officer, made some ethnically-biased comments about Mexican men and how they related to his assessment of Peña Rodriguez's guilt.

Some choice quotes from the juror, identified only as H.C.:

  • "I think he did it because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want";
  • In his experience, "nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls;" and
  • 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 Justice

Peña Rodriguez appealed his conviction, but the court denied his request for a new trial, citing Colorado and federal rules prohibiting jurors from testifying about statements made during deliberations. But the Supreme Court agreed with Peña Rodriguez, ruling clear statements from a juror indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant are an exception to the no-impeachment rule. In those cases, the Court ruled, trial courts can review the statements for Constitutional violations.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, had a few choice quotes of his own:

  • "The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. 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";
  • "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"; and
  • Judicial review is necessary in these cases "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."

But Peña Rodriguez isn't necessarily free yet. The Supreme Court merely sent his case back to the Supreme Court of Colorado, where it will review the juror's statements and make its own determination whether they warrant overturning Peña Rodriguez's conviction.

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