EvidenceProf Blog

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

Supreme Court Exercises its Duty to Confront Racial Animus, Allows Jury Impeachment Based on Racial Bias

There's one legal topic I've discussed on this blog more than any other: Should jurors be able to impeach their verdicts by testifying about racial bias during deliberations. I link to many of my posts in this post, which also discusses the article I wrote on the topic: Dismissed with Prejudice: Why Application of the Anti-Jury Impeachment Rule to Allegations of Racial, Religious, or Other Bias Violates the Right to Present a Defense.* Now, about eight years after that article, the United States Supreme Court has finally agreed.

Today, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. In Peña-Rodriguez, Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez was convicted of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. After Peña-Rodriguez was convicted, two jurors submitted affidavits.

The affidavits by the two jurors described a number of biased statements made by another juror, identified as Juror H. C. According to the two jurors, H. C. told the other jurors that he “believed the defendant was guilty because, in [H. C.’s] 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.” Id., at 110. The jurors reported that H. C. 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.’”...According to the jurors, H. C. 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 Juror H. C. 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.)

Peña-Rodriguez used these affidavits to file for a new trial, but the Colorado courts deemed them inadmissible under Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b), which provides that

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, 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 his or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing him to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning his mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jurors' attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror. Nor may his affidavit or evidence of any statement by him concerning a matter about which he would be precluded from testifying be received for these purposes.

The Supreme Court disagreed, in the process concluding that the Supreme Court has a strong duty to confront racial bias in the justice system:

The duty to confront racial animus in the justice system is not the legislature’s alone. Time and again, this Court has been called upon to enforce the Constitution’s guaran­ tee against state-sponsored racial discrimination in the jury system. Beginning in 1880, the Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit the exclusion of jurors on the basis of race....The Court has repeatedly struck down laws and practices that systematically exclude racial minorities from juries....To guard against discrimi­ nation in jury selection, the Court has ruled that no liti­ gant may exclude a prospective juror on the basis of race....In an effort to ensure that individuals who sit on juries are free of racial bias, the Court has held that the Constitution at times demands that defendants be permitted to ask questions about racial bias during voir dire.

While acknowledging that it had not previously allowed jury impeachment in cases of a compromise verdict or juror drug and alcohol abuse, the Court found that

The same cannot be said about racial bias, a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. This Court’s decisions demonstrate that racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treat­ment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.

Accordingly, the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury must trump Rule 606(b) and allow for jury impeachment in cases where there are claims of racial bias** during deliberations:

where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.


*I also wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the subject.

**I wonder whether this would also apply in cases of religious, gender, or other bias.



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I introduced my students to this issue via the McCowen case - the Cape Cod murder case. The trial judge took evidence of the racial comments in a hearing, and issued an opinion. This was some years ago.

Posted by: Rick Underwood | Mar 7, 2017 5:36:40 AM

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