WASHINGTON (CN) – Alarmed by evidence of racial bias in a jury that convicted a man of harassing underage teens, the Supreme Court carved an exception Monday to a centuries-old rule limiting the second-guessing of jury verdicts.
Known as the no-impeachment rule, the principle at issue protects a jury’s verdict from being called into question later based on the comments or conclusions they expressed during deliberations.
“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,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a five-person majority.
In the case at hand, evidence of racial bias came to light after a Nevada jury convicted Miguel Pena-Rodriguez of harassing a pair of teenage sisters in the bathroom of a horse-racing track where he worked.
The jury had already been discharged when two jurors approached Pena-Rodriguez’s attorney to report questionable comments by a third member of the jury, described in the court record only by his initials.
“I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want,” juror HC had remarked, according to affidavits signed by the other two jurors.
Though Pena-Rodriguez’s attorney moved for a new trial based on these affidavits, the trial court cited the no-impeachment rule in shooting this effort down.
Pena-Rodriguez had to register as a sex offender and his appeals proved unsuccessful before the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Monday.
Kennedy noted that HC’s alleged statements “were egregious and unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias.”
“Not only did juror H. C. deploy a dangerous racial stereotype to conclude petitioner was guilty and his alibi witness should not be believed, but he also encouraged other jurors to join him in convicting on that basis,” the ruling continues.
The trial court had declined to consider the juror affidavits concerning HC’s comments under Colorado’s Rule 606(b), but Kennedy said today’s ruling removes that hurdle.
“When jurors disclose an instance of racial bias as serious as the one involved in this case, the law must not wholly disregard its occurrence,” Kennedy wrote.
The ruling notes that 17 jurisdictions have already “recognized a racial-bias exception to the no-impeachment rule — some for over half a century — with no signs of an increase in juror harassment or a loss of juror willingness to engage in searching and candid deliberations.”
A dissent by Justice Samuel Alito blasts the majority for prying the sacrosanct jury room.
“This is a startling development, and although the court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled grounds for preventing the expansion of today’s holding,” Alito wrote, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts. “The court justifies its decision on the ground that the nature of the confidential communication at issue in this particular case — a clear expression of what the Court terms racial bias — is uniquely harmful to our criminal justice system. And the court is surely correct that even a tincture of racial bias can inflict great damage on that system, which is dependent on the public’s trust. But until today, the argument that the court now finds convincing has not been thought to be sufficient to overcome confidentiality rules like the one at issue here.”
Justice Thomas added in a separate dissent that today’s ruling “cannot be squared with the original understanding of the Sixth or Fourteenth Amendments.”
“Perhaps good reasons exist to curtail or abandon the no-impeachment rule,” Thomas wrote. “Some states have done so, and others have not. Ultimately, that question is not for us to decide. It should be left to the political process described by Justice Alito. In its attempt to stimulate a ‘thoughtful, rational dialogue’ on race relations, the court today ends the political process and imposes a uniform, national rule. The Constitution does not require such a rule. Neither should we.”