Addressing Racial Bias in US Jury Deliberations

Justitia, a monument in Frankfurt, Germany

The Supreme Court of the United States released its decision on the Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado case on March 6, 2017. In a 5-3 decision delivered by Justice Kennedy, SCOTUS clarified the courts’ ability to review a jury verdict where a juror expresses racial prejudice during jury deliberations.

Mr. Peña-Rodriguez was convicted by a Colorado jury of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. After the jury verdict was entered and the jury was discharged, two of the jurors approached defence counsel and claimed that one of the jurors (HC) had expressed anti-Hispanic sentiments. According to the affidavits of the two jurors who came forward, HC made a number of statements during deliberations that demonstrated racial bias against Peña-Rodriguez and his primary witness, both of whom are Hispanic. On this basis, Pena-Rodriguez filed a motion for a new trial. The trial court dismissed Peña-Rodriguez’s motion and declined to set aside the jury verdict and order a new trial. The court reasoned that, although there was apparent evidence of racial animus, HC’s statements did not justify an exception to Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b), which restricts jurors from testifying about jury deliberations in proceedings inquiring into the validity of a verdict. The court’s dismissal of the motion was then affirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court.

Evidentiary rules generally protect statements made during jury deliberations from being the subject of testimony. In dismissing the motion, the trial court relied on Rule 606(b) and the common-law principle that a juror cannot impeach a jury verdict, which had also been established as a Federal Rule of Evidence by Congress in 1975. While the rule is intended to protect the sanctity of jury deliberations and afford finality to their verdict, several states had adopted this rule with flexibility, allowing for exceptions in certain compelling circumstances.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, the primary issue was whether allowing for an exception to the no-impeachment rule in instances of racial bias properly balanced the purpose of the rule with the accused’s right to a fair and impartial trial. SCOTUS ultimately reversed the decision of the courts below and remanded the case. Next, the trial court will consider the two jurors’ testimony to determine whether HC’s alleged racial prejudice demands ordering a new trial for Peña-Rodriguez.

SCOTUS held that the Sixth Amendment, which safeguards the rights of the accused in criminal proceedings, constitutionally protects against allowing racial bias to be a significant animating factor in a juror’s finding of guilt. This is supported by other procedural protections afforded to the criminal defendant that seek to eliminate the possibility for racially motivated prejudice, such as the prohibition against excluding a juror simply because they are a racial minority. Any influence of racial animus in proceedings is thought to seriously undermine the fair administration of justice and the appearance thereof. Pursuant to this decision, courts may now exercise judicial discretion to order a new trial where there is sufficient evidence that racial stereotypes or bias were a significant motivating factor in a juror’s decision to convict.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas dissented, expressing concern that the majority had not adequately considered the risk their decision would have on the stability of jury verdict and jurors’ freedom to discuss cases openly and frankly. The majority’s decision also refrained from elucidating a specific standard by which the court can determine whether a new trial is required. While the majority suggested a relatively high bar for a new trial and a significant degree of judicial discretion, noting that not every distasteful comment by a juror will require a new trial, it is unclear exactly what level of racial bias will meet the threshold or if other types of bias will warrant consideration. However, what the majority’s decision makes abundantly clear is that racial prejudice is a serious threat to the justice system and there is no absolute bar on considering a juror’s testimony related to allegations of racial prejudice during jury deliberations.

This blog post was written by a CCLA summer student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA.