The decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado did not receive much attention. But, it should have. In that case, a Mexican immigrant was found guilty of assaulting two teenage girls. After the verdict, a member of the jury reported that another member of the jury said some racist things about Mr. Pena-Rodriguez. The jury was all white. One juror, a former police officer, said he’s guilty “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take what they want.” The same juror made several anti-Mexican comments. He dismissed the credibility of an alibi witness because the witness was an illegal immigrant. These statements are clearly racist. If these sentiments had been known, they would have kept the former police officer off the jury. But, because the statement did not come to light until after the verdict, it could not be used under the law in Colorado and in most states.
Most states have a version of the “no impeachment” rule, that provides a jury cannot be impeached after the verdict for things said during deliberations. There are just a few limited exceptions to the rule, such as when a juror considers something s/he should not have during deliberations.
The no impeachment rule dates back to common law England. But, as Justice Kagan pointed out, this is as good as “smoking gun” evidence gets. This statement clearly shows racist sentiment. By a 5-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that where prejudice is involved, the “no impeachment” rule must give way. The Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a trial by jury, requires the courts to consider evidence of racial bias.
As the dissent pointed out, this ruling will invite scrutiny of jurors everywhere regarding what was said in the formerly sacred room, the jury room. It is common practice for lawyers to meet with jurors after a trial to discuss how they arrived at their verdict. If evidence of racial bias is fair game, then surely other forms of bias will also become fair game. And, yes, that does open a Pandora’s box. But, the alternative is jurors acting out of racist prejudice. And, that cannot be allowed. See Above the Law blog post here. The time may come when we move away from the jury system. England uses juries in only rare cases, now. See the decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15-6-6 (3/6/2017) here.