Jury’s Racial Bias Can Be Probed After Trial, Supreme Court Rules

  • Court’s 5-3 ruling could mean new trial in groping case
  • Kennedy says racial bias ‘antithetical’ to jury system

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the way for greater post-trial scrutiny of jury verdicts in criminal cases, ruling that judges can consider evidence that a juror made racially biased comments during deliberations.

In a 5-3 decision Monday, the justices said a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial outweighed the traditional rule that a jury’s deliberations are secret.

"Blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

The ruling could mean a new trial for Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez, who was convicted of harassing two teenage girls and groping one of them in a women’s bathroom in 2007. Rodriguez, who worked at the Colorado racetrack where the incident occurred, says he was misidentified.

The jury convicted Pena Rodriguez of three misdemeanor counts. After trial, two jurors submitted sworn statements saying another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward Pena Rodriguez and an alibi witness who testified on his behalf.

Among other comments, the juror allegedly said Pena Rodriguez "did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want."

‘No Impeachment’ Rules

The federal government and most states prohibit verdicts from being challenged on the basis of juror testimony about comments made during deliberations. The prohibitions are colloquially known as "no impeachment" rules.

Colorado argued that creating a new exception to no-impeachment rule would inhibit full and frank discussion in the jury room. The state also said other safeguards -- such as the right to question jurors about possible bias before they are seated -- assure the jury system’s integrity.

Pena Rodriguez contended that courts have long admitted juror testimony about jury-room misconduct, including racially biased comments, without any appreciable negative effects.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

"Today, with the admirable intention of providing justice for one criminal defendant, the Court not only pries open the door," Alito wrote for the group. "It rules that respecting the privacy of the jury room, as our legal system has done for centuries, violates the Constitution."

The case is Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 15-606.

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