The United States Supreme Court has held that, when there is clear evidence that a juror relied on racial bias to convict a defendant, a trial court may set aside the no-impeachment rule and inquire into the jury’s deliberations to determine whether the defendant was denied his or her Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. See Pen͂a-Rodriguez v Colorado (Mar. 6, 2017, No. 15-606) 2017 WL 855760, 2017 US Lexis 1574.
Miguel Angel Pen͂a-Rodriguez was convicted of unlawful sexual contact and harassment. After the trial court discharged the jury, two jurors came forward to report to defense counsel that, during deliberations, another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward the defendant and the defendant’s alibi witness. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial based on this information, citing a state rule of evidence prohibiting a juror from testifying about statements made during deliberations in a proceeding inquiring into the verdict’s validity. The trial court’s decision was affirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court reversed. The Court reviewed the historical evolution of the no-impeachment rule from its inception in the English common law through its codification in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which prohibits a juror from testifying about, and a court from receiving evidence of, (1) any statements made by jurors during jury deliberations, (2) the effect of anything on a juror’s vote, or (3) a juror’s mental processes concerning the verdict. Fed R Evid 606(b)(1). Exceptions are limited to when there is evidence that a juror considered prejudicial extraneous matter (e.g., consulting news articles) or was subject to some other outside influence. Fed R Evid 606(b)(2). The no-impeachment rule seeks to give stability and finality to verdicts by “promot[ing] full and vigorous discussion by providing jurors with considerable assurance that after being discharged they will not be summoned to recount their deliberations, and they will not otherwise be harassed or annoyed by litigants seeking to challenge the verdict.”
Noting that prior cases have emphasized (although not held) that there might be “extreme cases” where an exception to the no-impeachment rules may be warranted, the Court found that racial bias in jury deliberations is of a difference character than, for example, evidence that a juror had a pro-defendant bias:
[I]f left unaddressed, [racial bias] would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. This Court’s decisions demonstrate that racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not 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.
As a result, the Court held that when a juror makes a “clear statement” indicating that he or she relied on some type of racial stereotype or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment permits the trial court to consider evidence of that racial bias to determine if the defendant has been denied his or her constitutional right to an impartial jury. The Court cautioned that, before setting aside the no-impeachment rule, 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,” and the statement must tend to show that the bias was a “significant motiving factor in the juror’s vote to convict.” Whether this standard has been met is within the trial court’s substantial discretion in light of all the circumstances.
The Court left unresolved what procedures a trial court must follow when confronted with a motion for a new trial based on juror testimony of racial bias as well as the appropriate standard for determining when evidence of racial bias is sufficient to require the trial court to set aside a verdict and order a new trial.
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