Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Juror’s Racial Bias Enough to Impeach Verdict and Set New Trial

Revelations of a juror’s racial bias during deliberation opens up the jury verdict to impeachment and allows a court to considers the statement’s in whether to grant a new trial.

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 580 U.S. ___ (2017).

The Supreme Court held that statements made by a juror during a trial that espouses animus or a bias based on race may violate a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury. In the case, the defendant was convicted of several sex crimes involving minors. After the trial, the defense counsel spoke to jurors about the case and during the conversation, two jurors came forward to alert the defense counsel that one juror made racially disparaging remarks about the defendant to garner support for the conviction verdict. After this discovery, the counsel for the defendant moved for a new trial. The trial court, however, denied the motion under the Colorado rule modeled after FRE 606(b), which prohibits the impeachment of a jury verdict based on statements made by a juror.

The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the decision of the Colorado courts, noting the historical racial bias “implicates unique historical constitutional, and institutional concerns.” Moreover, the court stated “Racial bias is distinct in a pragmatic sense,” while there are safeguards such voir dire or juror observation during the trial, these mechanisms “may be compromised, or….prove insufficient.”

When there is a case where a juror makes a “clear statement that indicates…racial stereotypes or animus [used] to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule gives 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.” To show that a racially biased statement impeded a fair trial, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made overtly biased statements that raise doubt on the fairness of the jury deliberations and verdict. The statement must also “show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.”

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