U.S. Supreme Court Addresses Racial Bias in the Jury Room – Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court, in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, announced “a constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered.” The general rule, in the federal courts and in Colorado, prohibits juror testimony as to statements made during deliberations. In this case, one of the jurors made a number of derogatory race-based statements to persuade his fellow jurors to convict the defendant. The Court held that there is a constitutionally mandated exception to the rule when racial bias is employed in the jury room:

“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.”

The No-Impeachment Rule

The general rule, that a verdict cannot be impeached by juror testimony following a verdict, comes from a 1785 case in England called Vaise v. Delaval. Following the defendant’s conviction, Lord Mansfield ruled that jurors could not testify that the verdict had been decided by a game of chance, and articulated the “No-Impeachment Rule,” also known as the “Lord Mansfield Rule,” that jurors may not testify about their subjective mental processes or any events that occurred during deliberations.

America later adopted the Lord Mansfield Rule but added some exceptions. The federal, Colorado, and South Carolina rules prohibit jurors from testifying about their thought processes during deliberations, but they do permit juror testimony about external influences on the jurors’ deliberation, such as contact with third parties, exposure to news about the case, or jurors that personally investigate the facts during the trial. Some states have even more lenient rules, such as the Iowa Rule that permits juror testimony about objective facts or events that occurred during deliberations but not the juror’s thought processes.

Pena-Rodriguez

Two of the jurors stayed after the trial and provided affidavits to the Court stating that another juror had made racial statements about the defendant and the defendant’s alibi witness throughout deliberations. The juror, who was a former police officer, told the other jurors that:

  • Based on his experience as a police officer, he felt that Pena-Rodriguez was guilty because “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.”
  •  “Nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”
  • The defendant’s alibi witness was “an illegal” and therefore was not credible, even though the witness’ uncontradicted testimony was that he was a legal resident.

The trial judge denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial because Colorado’s rule prohibits juror testimony about deliberations.

What is the South Carolina Rule?

South Carolina’s Rule 606 permits juror testimony as to external influences that may have affected the jurors’ deliberations, but it prohibits testimony as to statements jurors made during deliberations. See Shumpert v. State from 2008. Shumpert upheld a trial court’s decision not to accept juror testimony where the jurors had inappropriately discussed the defendant’s failure to testify. However, the S.C. Supreme Court has held, in State v. Hunter in 1995, “that juror testimony involving internal misconduct may be received only when necessary to ensure fundamental fairness.”

The Court in Hunter held that allegations of racial prejudice involve principles of fundamental fairness, and, if a juror alleges that racial prejudice played a role in the verdict, “investigation into the matter is necessary.” Furthermore, S.C. Courts have held that a defendant must demonstrate that prejudice resulted from the juror misconduct (prejudice to the outcome of the case as opposed to racial prejudice). Of course, if “investigation into the matter” is all that is required . . .

In Hunter, the only black juror reported to the court that another juror had used the word “nigger” during deliberations while mis-quoting witness testimony, that she felt threatened by the juror, and that she felt coerced into agreeing to the verdict when other white jurors put their hand on her shoulder and said “you know he’s guilty.” Despite this, the Court held that this was insufficient to reverse the verdict.

Richardson’s actions do not indicate she felt threatened or coerced. She at no time stopped the deliberation process in order to notify the judge of any of these things. She was polled after the verdict and indicated guilty was her verdict. Further, she was contacted by a newspaper the day after the trial and made comments to the effect that she had not wanted to vote guilty. Nevertheless, she still did nothing to notify the judge until she was contacted by the defense attorneys. She was familiar with the court system, having served on juries before, and did not feel intimidated by the trial judge. In sum, we find no error in the trial court’s denial of Hunter’s motion for a new trial based on allegations of jury misconduct.

On the other hand, the possibility that jurors may have begun deliberations prematurely, in State v. Aldret, was sufficient to accept juror testimony and it was sufficient for the S.C. Supreme Court to reverse and remand the case. So, South Carolina already has an exception to the no-impeachment rule in cases that “involve principles of fundamental fairness,” although “fundamental fairness” is whatever the Supreme Court says it is. Hopefully, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance in Pena-Rodriguez, South Carolina’s Supreme Court might agree in future appeals that the use of racial epithets in the jury room is at least as prejudicial and violative of fundamental fairness as a jury beginning their deliberations prematurely?

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