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SCOTUS: Constitution requires allowing juror testimony on racial bias

Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, USSC No. 15-606, 2017 WL 855760 (March 6, 2017), reversing Peña-Rodriguez v. People, 350 P.3d 287 (Colo. 2015); Scotusblog page

Every state and federal jurisdiction has some version of the “no-impeachment rule,” which, after a verdict is received, bars an aggrieved party from presenting testimony by jurors regarding the jury’s deliberations. SCOTUS has twice upheld such rules against constitutional challenge, while allowing that there could be certain cases in which refusing to permit such testimony would be too harmful to justice. The court now decides that the no-impeachment rule must give way to the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury where “a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant.”

Peña-Rodriguez was charged with sexual offenses against two teenage girls. He went to trial and presented an alibi defense. Shortly after the guilty verdict, two jurors informed his attorney that a third juror had made several racist remarks during deliberations. The juror

told the other jurors that he “believed the defendant was guilty because, in [his] 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.” The jurors reported that [he] stated his belief that Mexican men are physically controlling of women because of their sense of entitlement, and further stated, “‘I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.’” [He] 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 [he] said that he did not find petitioner’s alibi witness credible because, among other things, the witness was “ ‘an illegal.’” (In fact, the witness testified during trial that he was a legal resident of the United States.)

(Slip op. at 4).

A four-justice majority now reverses the Colorado Supreme Court’s refusal to admit the juror’s statements to attack Peña-Rodriguez’s conviction. Though it had previously determined that the Sixth Amendment did not require the admission of testimony regarding drinking and drug use in the jury room or a juror’s alleged misrepresentations during voir dire, (slip op. at 11-12) the Court concludes, in essence, that open racism in the courtroom is too great an evil to tolerate, and that it is not easily warded off by other safeguards like voir dire, juror reports during trial, and non-juror evidence after trial.  (Slip op. at 16).

Justice Alito, joined by Roberts and Thomas, dissents, arguing that the purposes of the no-impeachment rule (chiefly, permitting open and vigorous deliberation) are threatened by the court’s decision, that there is no evidence that racially biased jurors cannot be weeded out in voir dire, and that the Sixth Amendment does not impose different rules for different “types” of partiality. Justice Thomas files a separate dissent in which he argues that, because the no-impeachment rule was widespread at the time of the founding, the Sixth Amendment cannot be read to overcome such a rule under any circumstances.

As the majority notes, Wisconsin courts are among those that have posited a racial bias exception to the no-impeachment rule, though they have never granted relief on this basis. Now that the exception is formally recognized as a federal constitutional right, the state courts may have occasion to apply it more frequently.

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