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Publications | March 8, 2017
3 minute read

SCOTUS: The Door to the Jury Room Can be Opened if Evidence of Racial Bias

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court (USSC) published a decision establishing a new exception to the no-impeachment rule—courts must hear juror testimony regarding another juror’s statements during deliberation if those statements reveal that a juror was motivated by overt racial bias in reaching his or her decision. Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 580 U.S. ___ (2017).  

In Peña-Rodriguez, the defendant was convicted of unlawful sexual contact and harassment following a jury trial. After the verdict was delivered, two jurors approached Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s attorney and informed him that another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward the defendant. Furthermore, the juror made statements suggesting that his decision to find the defendant guilty was at least partially based in this animus. The trial judge did not allow evidence of these statements to be used in support of Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s request for a new trial.

In a 5-3 split decision, the USSC reversed the trial court’s ruling and established a new exception to the no-impeachment rule for instances of overt racial bias that appears to have been a “significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.” Id., slip op. at 17. The Court based its decision on a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury trial. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority noted that although the Court’s decision established a new rule, past precedent had left open a window for an exception based on “juror bias so extreme, that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged.” Id. at 12.

Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, dissented. Justice Alito’s opinion was sympathetic to the majority’s hope of eliminating racial bias, but warned of the risks in opening up the inner-workings of the jury room to scrutiny.

The immediate implication of the Court’s ruling is straightforward—minority defendants have a new basis upon which to attack an unfavorable verdict. If a defendant can acquire evidence of “overt” racial bias from within the jury, that evidence can now be presented to the trial court in an effort to obtain a new trial.  

But the mechanics of how such a challenge might be brought are less clear. State and local rules regarding post-verdict jury contact will be under the microscope. It is likely that criminal defense attorneys whose clients suffer an unfavorable verdict will be motivated to probe jurors regarding details of their deliberations. To avoid juror harassment, judges might be more guarded in allowing post-trial discussion. And given the ease with which technology and social media allows jurors to be identified and located outside of court, some courts might feel obliged to take more drastic measures to protect jurors from post-trial harassment.

The short-term effect of this rule will largely be shaped by how local judges react to its implementation. The local rules that emerge, if any, will dictate whether the previously locked door to the jury room is cracked open to effectively protect against racial bias, or if it is “prie[d] open” in a way that threatens the sanctity of jury deliberations, as the dissent warns. Id., Alito, J., dissenting, at 2.

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