Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Racist comments during jury deliberations denied defendant a fair trial

The Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants are denied a fair trial if jurors articulate racial stereotypes or discrimination during deliberations. This is one of the few cases where the Court will allow jurors to impeach their own verdict.

The case is Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, decided on March 6. The rule that jurors generally cannot impeach their own verdict is as old as the hills. It goes back to the pre-American revolution days. The theory is that jurors should be able to freely discuss the case among themselves without disgruntled litigants harassing them post-trial looking for a reason to argue that the jurors did not know what they were doing or did not deliberate properly. In this case, the Supreme Court traces the history of the no-impeachment rule, noting that Congress codified it in enacting the Federal Rules of Evidence in the mid-1970s. But apart from the values promoted by the no-impeachment rule, we also have to apply the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in the criminal justice system (and in all other government programs). Writing for the 5-3 majority (Roberts, Thomas and Alito dissent), Justice Kennedy notes that "This case lies at the intersection of the Court’s decisions endorsing the no-impeachment rule and its decisions seeking to eliminate racial bias in the jury system."

In this case, the defendant was charged with sex offenses. During deliberations, one of the jurors had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness. In particular, he said "'I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.’ According to the jurors, H. C. further explained that, in his experience,'nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.' Finally, the jurors recounted that Juror H. C. said that he did not find petitioner’s alibi witness credible because, among other things, the witness was ‘an illegal.’” The defendant's lawyers found out about these comments and brought it to the judge's attention.

The Supreme Court has shied away from reopening cases based on juror craziness, but it will not tolerate racism in the jury room. Here is the rule laid down by the Justices:

The Court now holds that where a juror makes a clear statement that indicate she or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.Not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar to allow further judicial inquiry. For the inquiry to proceed, 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. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict. Whether that threshold showing has been satisfied is a matter committed to the substantial discretion of the trial court in light of all the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence.

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