Courts must be allowed to consider evidence that jurors relied on racial bias or animus in convicting a defendant, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The ruling creates an important exception to the so-called "no-impeachment rule," a rule of evidence that bars post-verdict testimony about juror deliberations. When those deliberations, due to juror bias, may have violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, courts must be allowed to consider such evidence, the Court explained in a 5-3 decision written by Justice Kennedy.
The Difficult Task of Challenging Juror Racism
The Supreme Court's ruling in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, stems from the conviction of Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez. Pena-Rodriguez was found guilty of misdemeanor sexual contact and harassment in Colorado, and as a result has to register as a sex offender. But, after Pena-Rodriguez's conviction, two jurors came forward to report that racism may have played a significant role in the outcome.
One juror, an ex-police officer, made several racist comments during deliberations, while arguing for a conviction, the jurors reported. That ex-officer claimed that Pena-Rodriguez must be guilty "because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want." Men like Pena-Rodriguez had "a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they want with women," the juror explained. The same juror also urged others to discount a Hispanic witness because he was "an illegal."
Pena-Rodriguez sought to challenge his conviction on the basis of the juror's racism. But Colorado's no-impeachment rule made the juror's statement inadmissible. Such no-impeachment rules can be found in every state, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Rules of Evidence. And while at least 16 jurisdictions have an exception for evidence of racial bias in deliberations, Colorado was not one of them.
The "Familiar and Recurring Evil" of Racial Bias
In its opinion, the Court acknowledged the importance of the no-impeachment rule, tracing its origin back to the English case of Vaise v. Delaval, in 1785, where jurors had decided the case "through a game of chance." Nonetheless, their verdict stood.
The rule, having evolved in various directions over the years, "has substantial merit," the Court explained.
It promotes full and vigorous discussion by providing jurors with considerable assurance that after being discharged they will not be summoned to recount their deliberations, and they will not otherwise be harassed or annoyed by litigants seeking to challenge the verdict. The rule gives stability and finality to verdicts.
Yet it cannot withstand the Sixth Amendment, nor "the imperative to purge racial prejudice from the administration of justice."
Pena-Rodriguez's case differs from those in which the Supreme Court has upheld verdicts despite juror misconduct, the Court explained. The jury system can survive the occasional irregularity, according to the Court. But "the same cannot be said about racial bias, a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice."
As such, the no-impeachment rule must "give way" under the Sixth Amendment in order to allow courts to consider evidence of jurors' racial bias. "Not every offhand comment" will suffice, the Court clarified. There must be evidence of statements showing "overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality" of the jury, and those statements must "tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor" behind the conviction. Pena-Rodriguez's case met that bar, the Supreme Court determined.
Following a Trend, But With Dissenters
Yesterday's opinion marks the second case in as many weeks to decry the insidious effects of racism on the justice system.
Two weeks ago, the Court overturned a death sentence that had been tainted by racial bias. In that case, a Texas convict had been sentenced to death after his own defense presented expert testimony claiming that Buck was more likely to be violent in the future because of his race. Chief Justice Roberts denounced the "particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice" in that case.
But the Chief Justice did not join yesterday's majority, instead siding with a dissent written by Justice Alito. Creating an exception to the no-impeachment rule "pries open the door" to undermining the finality of verdicts, Justice Alito claimed. "This is a startling development, and although the Court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled reasons for preventing the expansion of today's holding," he wrote.