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Supreme Court to Take on Juror Bias, Racism

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 06, 2016 1:02 PM

Do accusations of an unfair conviction, tainted by juror racism, justify breaching the confidentiality of jury deliberations? The Supreme Court will answer that question in its next term.

On Monday, the Court granted cert to Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a challenge to state and federal rules that prohibit evidence about juror statements made during deliberations. The so-called "no impeachment" rules have been criticized for impeding defendants' ability to show that their right to a fair trial has been violated, though their supporters argue that the rules protect jurors from later coercion and uphold the integrity of deliberations.

A Question Whose Time Has Come

No impeachment rules are widespread. They're codified in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), prohibiting juror testimony during an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, for example, as well as in many state laws and even common law doctrine. But critics say the no impeachment rules violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a fair trial by preventing defendants from showing evidence of bias.

The Supreme Court turned down a similar challenge to no impeachment rules just two years ago. But, as The Washington Post points out, that case did not involve accusations of racial bias. In a footnote, Justice Sotomayor wrote that:

There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged. If and when such a case arises, the Court can consider whether the usual safeguards are or are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the process.

12 Angry Racist Men?

Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez's challenge presents that opportunity. Peña-Rodriguez was found guilty of three misdemeanor sexual harassment charges in Colorado. As a result, he had to register as a convicted sex offender.

But juror bias may have significantly influenced those convictions.

After the trial, two jurors came forward to report racist comments made during deliberations. One juror, an ex-police officer, said that Peña-Rodriguez was guilty "because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want." Mexican men had "a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women," the juror claimed. He also encouraged others to discount a Hispanic witness as unreliable, because he was "an illegal."

Under Colorado law, none of those statements were admissible. That could change with Peña-Rodrigeuz's challenge.

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