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  • James Wronko

United States Supreme Court Permits Investigation Into Jury Deliberations If Racism Was Present

In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 6, 2017 that when clear evidence emerges after a jury verdict that there was racial bias exhibited during deliberations, the trial judge must determine whether the defendant was denied a fair trial by making an exception to the rule protecting the secrecy of deliberations.

The Court stated that racial discrimination is unlike other types of misconduct that may occur in the jury room because it “implicates unique historical” constitutional and institutional concerns.”

The ruling came in the case of Miguel Pena-Rodriguez, a Colorado horse trainer arrested in 2007 after two teenage girls identified him as the man who groped them in a darkened restroom at a horse barn.

After 12 hours of deliberations the jury found the defendant guilty on two misdemeanor counts.

On the day trial ended, two of the jurors told defense attorneys that during deliberations, one of the other jurors repeatedly had expressed a bias against the defendant and his alibi witness because of their Hispanic ethnicity.

With the trial judge’s permission, the lawyers then obtained affidavits in which the two jurors quoted another juror as saying that, from his experience as an ex-law enforcement officer, he suspected the defendant was guilty because Mexican men “believe[d] they could do whatever they wanted with women,” and that where he used to patrol, “nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”

The affidavits also quoted the other juror as saying that the alibi witness wasn’t credible because, among other things, he was “an illegal.”

The Court ruled that it would not allow any questioning of the jurors to see if a new trial would be granted because of a Court rule barring inquiry into the privacy of the jury room. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions holding that the “central purpose” of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee to equal protection of the law was to eliminate racial discrimination emanating from official sources in the states.

“The unmistakable principle underlying these precedents is that discrimination on the basis of race, odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice,” the Court wrote, adding that permitting racial prejudice in the jury system damages both the fact and the perception of the jury’s role as a vital check against the wrongful exercise of power by the state.

It is not possible to rid the jury system of “every irregularity,” 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.” In order to look into Jury deliberations there must be “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.”

In this case the court ruled 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 right to a fair and impartial jury trial requires that the usual jury secrecy rules gives way to permit the trial judge to consider whether there is evidence that the defendant has been denied a fair trial.

If you believe you may have been convicted by a racially biased Jury that engaged in misconduct, you should contact my office and ask to speak with an attorney.

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