In an opinion rendered this week-Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado-the Supreme Court carved out an important exception to a longstanding rule prohibiting jurors from being questioned about conduct during deliberations after a verdict has been rendered. The case involved a Colorado man who was convicted for sexually assaulting two teenage girls. The jury returned a verdict against him. After the trial, two jurors approached Mr. Pena-Rodriguez’s criminal defense attorney and expressed concerns about another juror’s racial comments during deliberations. Specifically, the juror went into a lengthy tirade about Mr. Pena-Rodriguez’s Hispanic heritage, noting that he “believed the defendant was guilty because, in [the juror’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.”
Despite the racially inflammatory comments, the Colorado court denied Mr. Pena-Rodriguez’s request for a new trial, because of a state law rule that prohibits jurors from testifying about statements made in deliberations in a proceeding to challenge the jury’s verdict. All fifty-states and the federal system recognize a version of this “juror non-impeachment rule,” and its common-law origins pre-date the founding of the United States. The rule is designed to protect the finality of a jury’s verdict and prevent attorneys and judges from second-guessing their decision. Protecting juror privacy is considered so important that, in a prior case-Tanner v. United States – the Supreme Court prohibited inquiry into deliberation where jurors were reported to have become intoxicated and smoked marijuana during court recesses.
The Pena-Rodriguez Court recognized the importance of this longstanding rule, but also considered the fact that all criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and a Fourteenth Amendment right to be treated equally under the law. It noted that the problem of racial bias on juries stretched back to the days after the Civil War, when all white juries would punish black Defendants harshly and refused to punish white criminals who committed acts of violence against Black victims. In an eleven-year period, for example, there were 500 prosecutions of white defendants charged with killing African-Americans, and all 500 were acquitted. The court concluded that a constitutional rule addressing racial bias “was necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment Trial right.”
Justice Kennedy’s opinion was careful to limit the new exception. To inquire into a jury verdict, the Court held that 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 the resulting verdict. The Court also declined to decide what a criminal defendant would be required to show to get a new trial for racial jury bias. Since attorneys cannot force jurors to talk about what happens in deliberation, the Pena-Rodriguez decision will also generally only apply where another juror comes forward to report the racial remarks of their peers. Nevertheless, the opinion is a promising commitment from the Court that the Constitution reaches even the most well-guarded institutions of the criminal justice system.