EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

We The Jury, Take 2: Western District Of Pennsylvania Denies Habeas Corpus In Racist Juror/Death Penalty Case

Three years ago, I posted an entry about the case of Roland Steele. I then used Steele's case as the launching point for my article, Dismissed with Prejudice. Here's what I wrote about Steele's case in my article:

After a jury trial in Pennsylvania in 1986, Roland William Steele, an African-American man, was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and related charges based upon his alleged killings of three Caucasian women. In 1996, he unsuccessfully filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition, in which he claimed, inter alia, “that his due process rights and right to a fair and impartial jury were violated by the racial prejudice of one of the jurors.” The basis for Steele’s petition, which the PCRA court deemed inadmissible, was the declaration of a juror, “who stated that race was an issue from the inception of the trial. The juror stated in his declaration that ‘early in the trial one of the other jurors commented on the race of the defendant.’” According to the declaration, the racist juror “‘also noted the race of three victims and stated that, on that basis alone, the defendant was probably guilty.’” The juror additionally alleged that the racist juror’s “‘comments continued at other breaks and he made very racist remarks. First one juror, then two or three more gradually became drawn to his position as the first week wore on.’” Finally, the declaration asserted that the racist juror said during trial that Steele should “‘fry, get the chair or be hung.’”

Devastatingly, the racist juror’s death wish will likely come true because Steele was given three separate death sentences. In 2008, Steele’s appeal from the PCRA court’s ruling finally reached the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which found in Commonwealth v. Steele that it could not consider the juror’s declaration. The court noted that under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 606(b):

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict,...a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury’s deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror’s mind or emotions in reaching a decision upon the verdict or concerning the juror’s mental processes in connection therewith, and a juror’s affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror about any of these subjects may not be received. However, a juror may testify concerning whether prejudicial facts not of record, and beyond common knowledge and experience, were improperly brought to the jury’s attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.

According to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, this Rule precluded the admission of the juror’s declaration because its exceptions apply only to “outside influences, not statements made by the jurors themselves.”

Recently, Steele filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. So, how did he fare?

Not well. At the evidentiary level, the Western District of Pennsylvania concluded that, pursuant to the rules governing petitions for writs of habeas corpus,

I may not re-examine the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's determination that [the juror]'s testimony was inadmissible to support this claim....For that reason alone, this claim fails.

The court then noted that Steele also claimed that the exclusion of the juror's testimony violated his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury:

Steele insists that his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury trumps the state court's evidentiary ruling. In support, he relies upon a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States v. Henley, 238 F.2d 1111 (9th Cir 2001), and other lower federal court cases which have suggested that the “no impeachment” rule is inapplicable where racial bias is alleged. 

The court, however, quickly dispatched with this argument concluding that

None of the cases cited by Steele represent “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States[.]”....Moreover, Steele's argument is foreclosed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Williams v. Price, 343 F.3d 223 (3d CIr. 2003). In that case, the court expressly rejected Henley and held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not violate "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court” in refusing to consider a juror's statements under Rule 606(b)'s “no impeachment” rule....Accordingly, there is no merit to this claim and it is denied.



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