When can you challenge racial bias in juror deliberations?

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Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado – Racial Bias in Juror Deliberations

On March 6, 2017, the United States Supreme Court held in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado that evidence of racial bias in juror deliberations is a constitutional violation. Believe it or not, this is the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving racial bias in the jury room. In previous cases addressing the admissibility of juror testimony, the Court has consistently held that juror testimony or affidavits cannot be used to challenge a verdict unless there is evidence of an inappropriate outside influence.

The Mansfield Rule

The rule prohibiting juror testimony following a trial originated in England in 1785 in the case of Vaise v. Delaval. Following the trial, Lord Mansfield declined to allow juror testimony that the case had been decided by a game of chance. He articulated what would become known as the Mansfield rule, which prohibits jurors “from testifying about their subjective mental processes or about objective events that occurred during deliberations.” American courts later adopted the Mansfield rule, also known as the no-impeachment rule, but added some limited exceptions. For example, the current federal rule permits juror testimony about external influences on juror deliberations such as a juror’s personal investigation of the facts or exposure to media reports. Other jurisdictions have adopted the more lenient Iowa rule, which prevents jurors “from testifying about their own subjective beliefs, thoughts, or motives during deliberations” but allows testimony about objective facts or events that occur during deliberations.

What Happened in Pena-Rodriguez?

Following the defendant’s trial and conviction for allegedly assaulting two teenage girls at a racetrack, two jurors stayed behind and expressed to the defendant’s attorney that another juror, a former police officer, had repeatedly expressed an anti-Hispanic bias when discussing the defendant and the defendant’s alibi witness. The two jurors provided affidavits to the court which described the third juror’s statements, including:

*     The defendant was guilty because, in the juror’s experience as a former law enforcement officer, “Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they want with women.”

*     “Mexican men are physically controlling of women because of their sense of entitlement.”

*     “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

*     In the juror’s experience, “nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”

*     The defendant’s alibi witness was not credible because he was “an illegal.” The witness actually testified during trial that he was a legal resident of the United States.

After receiving the affidavits, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial because, like the federal rule, Colorado prohibits testimony from any juror as to statements made during deliberations.

What Does Pena-Rodriguez Mean for Future Cases?

The Court set forth a clear rule and constitutional exception for when a trial court must permit juror testimony as to racial bias in the jury room following a verdict:

“For the reasons explained above, the Court now holds that 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. . .

For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.”

Last month, in Buck v. Davis, the Court addressed racial bias issues when they reversed a defendant’s death sentence because the defendant’s own attorney allowed expert testimony that the defendant was more likely to commit future crimes because he was black. In Pena-Rodriguez, the Court now announces “a constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered.”

Our hope is that the Court will continue to correct the most egregious cases of racial bias in the justice system. In the Justices’ own words, not in 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.”

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