Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado
Decided March 6, 2017
137 S.Ct. 855, 197 L.Ed.2d 107
The No-Impeachment Rule Concerning Jury Deliberations: Racial Bias Is Sufficient Reason To Breach The Sanctity Of The Juror Deliberations And Challenge The Basis Of The Verdict.
Issue: Whether an exception to the federal no-impeachment rule applies when a juror makes a statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes to convict a defendant.
Holding: When a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a 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.
Facts: Petitioner was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct and harassment by a Colorado jury.
Two jurors reported to defense counsel that Juror HC showed an anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s witness, including the statement, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
Juror HC’s statements were provided in the form of affidavits to the defense counsel.
Although the trial court acknowledged the statements, the court denied the petitioner’s motion for a new trial under Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b), which provides that a juror who testifies as to statements made during deliberations do not alter the validity of the verdict.
The Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the judgment and agreed that no exception rule applied to Rule 606(b).
Analysis: After being denied by the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court, the petitioner, on appeal to the US Supreme Court, urged that without an exception for racial bias, Rule 606(b) is a violation of his constitutional right to an impartial jury. Pena-Rodriguez argued that allowing the verdict to remain after the discovery of such a hateful bias is unjustified and that by allowing that dismissing such evidence leaves no opportunity for him to a right to an impartial jury. The petitioner also argued that the evidence may not have been previously available because jurors were not aware of Juror HC’s racial prejudices until deliberations.
First, the US Supreme Court established the importance of the jury in the United States’ founding stating that the “jury was considered a fundamental safeguard of individual liberty” and it is part of the US Constitution under the Sixth Amendment. Although the jury is a human institution that has its flaws, the justice system aims to protect fair and impartial verdicts.
In general, jury verdicts are well-protected so that they remain final. The no-impeachment rule serves to ensure the protection of jury verdicts by prohibiting statements made during deliberation to later be called into question, which was established in Vaise v. Delaval, 1 T. R. 11, 99 Eng. Rep. 944 (K. B. 1785). Here, the issue presented a question of whether the circumstances allowed an exception to this rule, where a juror has provided information indicating that another juror was motivated to convict the defendant based on racial animus.
The Supreme Court noted that states across the nation have adopted more lenient versions of the no impeachment rule. While nine jurisdictions follow the more lenient Iowa Rule, 42 jurisdictions follow the stricter Federal Rule. Within those jurisdictions, sixteen states recognize exception rules regarding racial bias. Further, various Courts of Appeals who have considered evidence of racial bias have come to conflicting conclusions. Three Courts of Appeals have held that there is a constitutional exception for evidence of racial bias. See United States v. Villar, 586 F. 3d 76, 87–88 (CA1 2009); United States v. Henley, 238 F. 3d 1111, 1119–1121 (CA9 2001); Shillcutt v. Gagnon, 827 F. 2d 1155, 1158–1160 (CA7 1987). Other Courts have found that no exception applies to evidence of racial bias. See United States v. Benally, 546 F. 3d 1230, 1240– 1241 (CA10 2008); Williams v. Price, 343 F. 3d 223, 237–239 (CA3 2003); Martinez v. Food City, Inc., 658 F. 2d 369, 373–374 (CA5 1981). Given the inconsistent applications of the no impeachment rule across the nation, it would be challenging to resolve the presented issue without thorough scrutiny.
The Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) provides few exceptions to the rule that a juror may testify about whether: “(A) extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention; “(B) an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror; or “(C) a mistake was made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.” F.R.E. 606(b). Few exceptions exist because the rule seeks to uphold the finality of jury verdicts, a concept protected by the United States Constitution. However, an issue arises here because the right to an impartial jury is also a constitutional right.
In its 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court, for the first time, held that the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee. While it noted that not every offhand comment indicating racial bias will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar, a showing of overt racial bias is enough. They pointed to the case at hand and how the alleged statements by the juror here were “egregious and unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias.”
The Supreme Court ultimately held that this new racial-bias exception is just adding to the already “existing processes designed to prevent racial bias in jury deliberations” but is a necessary exception because racial bias is such a “familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.”
The unmistakable principle underlying these precedents is that discrimination on the basis of race, “odious in all aspects, is especially pernicious in the administration of justice.” Rose v. Mitchell, 443 U.S. 545, 555, 99 S.Ct. 2993, 61 L.Ed.2d 739 (1979).
The jury is to be “a criminal defendant’s fundamental ‘protection of life and liberty against race or color prejudice. McCleskey v. Kemp,481 U.S. 279, 310, 107 S.Ct. 1756, 95 L.Ed.2d 262 (1987) (quoting Strauder, supra, at 309). Permitting racial prejudice in the jury system damages “both the fact and the perception” of the jury’s role as “a vital check against the wrongful exercise of power by the State.” Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 411, 111 S.Ct. 1364, 113 L.Ed.2d 411 (1991); cf. Aldridge v. United States, 283 U.S. 308, 315, 51 S.Ct. 470, 75 L.Ed. 1054 (1931).