Divided Supreme Court Strikes Down Rule Barring Evidence of Juror Racial Bias in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado

U.S. Supreme Court: Jurors’ Expressions of Overt Racial Bias during Deliberations no Longer Shrouded in Secrecy.

While many may have accepted defeat by the familiar and recurring evil of racial bias in the criminal justice system, Defendant Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, resilient in his innocence, persisted. Although Mr. Peña-Rodriguez is still yet to be fully vindicated, on March 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, — U.S. — (2017), Docket # 15-606, rebuked racial bias in the jury system and gave Mr. Peña-Rodriguez another shot at finding justice.

After a three-day trial, a Colorado jury convicted Mr. Peña-Rodriguez of unlawful sexual contact with two teenage girls. Following the discharge of the jury, two jurors provided sworn affidavits to Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’ defense counsel in which they stated that during jury deliberations, Juror H.C. made a number of biased statements regarding the race of Mr. Peña-Rodriguez and his alibi witness. Specifically, H.C. told the other jurors that he “believed the defendant was guilty because in [H.C.’s] 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.” H.C. further stated he believed Mexican men are physically controlling of women because of their sense of entitlement, and “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’ defense counsel presented the jurors’ affidavits to the trial court. Although the trial court acknowledged H.C.’s apparent bias, it nonetheless denied Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’ motion for a new trial on the ground that a juror may not testify as to statements made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the validity of the verdict. Minnesota follows this same rule. Mr. Peña-Rodriguez appealed the denial of his motion to the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court, suffering defeat in both venues. Despite enduring a series of disheartening losses, Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’ resolve remained intact, and he appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

In an impassioned opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’ favor, denouncing the immunity of verdicts rendered by racially biased juries and granting Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’ the opportunity to present evidence of racially biased jurors to support his motion for a new trial.

The Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial creates an exception to the historical rule protecting the secrecy of jury deliberations and preventing inquiry into the validity of a jury’s verdict where it has been shown that one or more jurors exhibited overt racial bias casting serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberation and resulting verdict. Thus, “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 requires” the trial court be permitted “to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.”

“It must become the heritage of our Nation to rise above racial classifications that are so inconsistent with our commitment to the equal dignity of all persons,” urged Justice Kennedy. “This Court’s decisions demonstrate that racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but 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.”

Madelyn Adams, Associate Attorney at KASSIUS BENSON LAW, P.A., (612) 333-2755