The Supreme Court on Monday said it will consider a case of alleged racial bias by a juror so severe that it may merit breaching the confidential nature of jury deliberations.
In most instances, state and federal laws prohibit defendants from challenging a jury’s verdict by introducing testimony about statements made during deliberations. But lawyers for a Colorado man persuaded the court to review whether comments made by a juror in his case were so discriminatory as to violate the defendant’s right to an impartial jury.
A juror in Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez’s sexual assault trial told other jurors that the defendant was guilty “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.” The juror, identified in court papers as H.C., said it was his experience in law enforcement that “nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”
The Supreme Court in 2014 unanimously turned aside a lawsuit that sought to challenge “no impeachment” rules that bar using jury deliberations as evidence in seeking a new trial. But in a footnote, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that case did not involve charges of racial discrimination.
“There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged,” Sotomayor wrote. “If and when such a case arises, the court can consider whether the usual safeguards are or are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the process.”
Peña Rodriguez, who is represented by Jeffrey L. Fisher of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, said his case presented that opportunity.
“When racial prejudice infects a jury’s decision whether to convict, the integrity of the criminal justice system is brought into direct question,” Fisher wrote. Groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed briefs urging the court to take the case.
Colorado responded that its no-impeachment rule had three goals: to promote finality of verdicts, shield verdicts from impeachment, and protect jurors from harassment and coercion. Proper questioning of potential jurors before the trial protects against bias, it said.
The case stems from an incident at Arapahoe Race Track in 2007. Peña Rodriguez was a horse keeper at the track, where three teenage sisters went into a restroom. A man entered behind them and asked whether they wanted to drink beer and “party.”
One girl left before the man turned out the lights and groped the others. They escaped and went to their father, who also worked at the track. Eventually they identified Peña Rodriguez as the man in the bathroom.
The jury deliberated for 12 hours and could not reach a verdict on a felony count of attempted sexual assault. It convicted Peña Rodriguez of three misdemeanors: one count of unlawful sexual contact and two counts of harassment. He was sentenced to probation and required to register as a sex offender.
After the verdict, two jurors went to defense attorneys to tell them what juror H.C. had allegedly said. Peña Rodriguez tried to use the statements to overturn the verdicts, but lower courts turned him down. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 that the state’s no-impeachment rule barred the statements.
Peña Rodriguez’s petition said that courts across the country are divided on the issue and that only the Supreme Court could decide whether such incidents violate the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of an impartial jury.
The case, Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado, will be argued in the term that begins in October.