EvidenceProf Blog

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

We The Jury: Supreme Court Of Pennsylvania Refuses To Hear Allegations Of Extreme Juror Racial Prejudice In Death Penalty Apeal

Sometimes, I wake up and read a news article or court opinion that puts a smile on my face because of an apparent wrong that has been righted, a justice wrenched from the grasps of an injustice.  Today is not one of those days.

Last March, I posted an entry about a Post-Conviction Collateral Relief Act (PCRA) petition by Fabian Smart, an African-American man from Pennsylvania who was convicted of murder in the first degree in connection with the beating death of a Lock Haven area man and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  According to Smart, a jury member contacted him after the trial and told him that jury members used racial slurs, which were brought up "early and often."  The judge, however, precluded Smart's attempt to impeach the jury's verdict through this evidence pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 606(b), which states in relevant part that:

     "Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict, including a sentencing verdict pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. §  9711 (relating to capital sentencing proceedings), 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."

In that post, I noted that this ruling was consistent with another Pennsylvania opinion, this one decided in the shadow of no towers.  As I noted,

     "In Tabchi v. Duchodni, 56 Pa. D. & C.4th 238 (Pa.Com.Pl. 2002), an Arab husband and wife and their three children were involved in a car accident and brought a civil action against the other driver for their injuries.  They thereafter moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, and their motion was granted; the defendant was held solely responsible for the accident, leaving only the issue of damages to be tried before the jury. Id. at 239.  At that trial, however, which began on September 24, 2001, "the jury returned a verdict in the amount of zero dollars as to each of the five plaintiffs, even though injuries to two of them were uncontroverted." Id.

     After the jury rendered its verdict, one of the jurors approached plaintiffs' counsel and allegedly informed him of disparaging remarks concerning plaintiffs' Arabic heritage and culture made by other members of the jury during the course of their deliberations. Id. at 241. Several days later, the court received a letter from the jury foreperson which claimed that the ethnicity of the plaintiffs was openly discussed and apparently considered as a factor in the jury's deliberations. See id.  The plaintiffs thereafter moved for a new trial, alleging, inter alia, that this prejudice made the jury's verdict fatally flawed. See id.

     The court rejected this claim, finding that the "[p]laintiffs' contention that the jury was influence by anti-Arab bias and bigotry in the course of its deliberations is based solely upon the allegations of other jurors.  However, such prejudice in the deliberative process, if it existed, and as odious and repugnant as it would be, is not and external or extraneous input that would override the sacrosanct nature of jury deliberations." Id. at 250 (emphasis added)."

While both of these rulings were troubling to me, they were lower Pennsylvania court opinions, giving me hope that if such a case ever reached the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, that court would perhaps reach the opposite conclusion or at least address the broader Constitutional ramifications of excluding juror allegations of prejudice.

But those hopes were squashed when I read the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's opinion in Commonwealth v. Steele, 2008 WL 5250893 (Penn. 2008).  Steele sounds a lot like Smart.  Roland William Steele, an African-American man, was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, two counts of robbery, and two counts of theft by unlawful taking based upon his alleged killing of three Caucasian women.  Like Smart, Steele filed a PCRA, and that motion was denied, leading to his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supremes.

One of Steele's claims in his PCRA was that "his due process rights and right to a fair and impartial jury were violated by [inter alia] the racial prejudice of one of the jurors."  Specifically, Steele referenced a

     "declaration of one of the jurors, [Mr. Mellow,] 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. He also noted the race of three victims and stated that, on that basis alone, the defendant was probably guilty....'  The juror continued:

     I was upset that he would articulate his prejudice and speculate on the guilt of the defendant, ignoring the instructions of Judge Bell.... His 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. These jurors also belittled the efforts of the defense lawyer. They were openly critical of him and actually made fun of him....

     The juror also stated that the juror that made the racist remark said, during the trial, that [Steele] should 'fry, get the chair or be hung."

And this is where Steele diverges from Smart.  While Smart was given life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the racist juror's wishes in Steele were granted:  Steele was given three separate death sentences.

So, what did the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania do with this claim?  Did it allow Steele to introduce the declaration upon the recognition that "death is different?"  Did it recognize the Constitutional ramifications of its decision but lamentably apply the strict language of Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 606(b) and exclude the declaration?

Unfortunately, the answer is "no and no."  Instead, in a curt conclusion that seemed completely insouciant to the fact that it had a man before it sentenced to die and extreme allegations of racial prejudice and influence, the court found that

     "Despite [Steele's] contentions, the exception to the general no impeachment rule is not implicated here. The exception only applies to outside influences, not statements made by the jurors themselves.... Here, one particular juror made some troubling statements. However, these statements were not based on any evidence not of record, or on any outside influences. Rather, one juror was attempting to influence the other jurors' opinion, although it was done inappropriately before deliberations. Indeed, Mr. Mellow's declaration states that the juror '... seemed to prey on the weaker jurors and tried to sway them....' Nevertheless, the influence here was internal, not from outside sources. Once the verdict was entered, the jurors, including Mr. Mellow, became incompetent to testify regarding any internal discussions or deliberations."

I mean no offense to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, but I have to ask, "How can you be so cold?"  I'm not typically a person who shows much emotion, but I welled up reading the court's opinion.  How could the court be so matter of fact with the stakes involved in this case?  How could they not address the Constitutional issues raised by Steele, even if it ultimnately rejected them?  I feel sick to my stomach, and it looks to me like the Justices gave Steele's claim as much consideration as a request by their children to buy them a candy bar at the grocery checkout aisle.  I'm sure that's not the case, but how else would a person reading the opinion take it?

As readers of this blog know, the article I am submitting to law reviews this spring addresses the exact issue raised in Steele, and I can only hope that I can change a few hearts and minds by claiming that decisions such as the decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania violate the right to present a defense.      



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