Should jury deliberations always be kept secret? That’s the question the Supreme Court is weighing right now.
In 2010, Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez was convicted of assaulting two teenage sisters at the racetrack where he worked, in Colorado. After his trial, two jurors told his lawyer that another juror had made bigoted statements about Latinos during deliberations. Peña-Rodriguez wanted another trial. The problem was that, like most states, Colorado has a law protecting jurors from testifying about any statements made during deliberations.
Eight states already allow defendants to challenge their verdicts based on improper behavior by the jury during deliberations, and there is no evidence that such laws have been disruptive or produced a flood of post-trial challenges.
- Raul A. Reyes
Peña-Rodriguez brought a suit challenging that law, and last week the case landed at the Supreme Court.
Colorado’s law should not be allowed to stand in the face of legitimate constitutional concerns. At a time when our criminal justice system has faced scrutiny over structural racism, the Court must do its part to root out improper bias on juries.
The ideal of secrecy during jury deliberations is not more important than the real-life consequences of racial bias among jurors.
It might surprise people to know that the high court has generally not been inclined to interfere with jury verdicts if it would require jurors to testify about deliberations. In Tanner v. U.S. (1987), the Court considered a challenge to a mail fraud case where jurors were reportedly on “one big party.” During deliberations, there was “rampant drug use.”
The jurors drank beer and wine, smoked marijuana, and used cocaine. Some jurors fell asleep or had fits of giggling in the courtroom. Amazingly, the Supreme Court let this jury’s verdict stand. They decided that allowing after-the-fact challenges to a verdict would undermine the finality of trials, and discourage jurors from speaking their minds during deliberations.
In Warger v. Shauers (2014) the Court likewise held that jurors should not be compelled to testify about deliberations, even to expose dishonesty during the jury selection process. So up to now, jury deliberations – no matter how dysfunctional – have basically been shielded from scrutiny once the jury’s verdict was in.
However, a footnote in the Warger case said that “there may be cases of juror bias so extreme that … the jury trial right has been abridged. If and when such a case arises, the Court can consider whether the usual safeguards are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the process.”
Now such a case has arisen. Peña-Rodriguez was convicted after the juror in question – a former law enforcement officer – argued during deliberations that Peña-Rodriguez was guilty “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
The juror stated that “nine out of 10” Mexican men are aggressive towards women. He called a witness who provided Peña-Rodriguez with an alibi an “illegal,” although that witness was in fact a legal resident. It’s hard to see how anyone can maintain that this juror’s prejudice did not infringe on Peña-Rodriguez’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.
At the oral arguments for the case, some of the justices seemed wary of ruling for Peña-Rodriguez. They worried that, if they allowed deliberations to be challenged on racism, that it would unleash all sorts of post-trial claims by defendants looking for one last chance at changing the outcome of their case. But eight states already allow defendants to challenge their verdicts based on improper behavior by the jury during deliberations, and there is no evidence that such laws have been disruptive or produced a flood of post-trial challenges.
Latinos should care about the outcome of Peña-Rodriguez’s case, and not just because he is Latino. Consider that Latinos are statistically underrepresented on juries. In New York City, for example, Latinos are 27 percent of the population, but only six percent of jurors. Hispanics are also underrepresented in juries everywhere from Texas to Washington. An American Bar Association report has called the lack of diversity on juries “a national problem with individual consequences.” What happened to Peña-Rodriguez could happen to us – or someone in our family or community. That’s why the Hispanic National Bar Association, civil rights groups, and even Mexico have submitted briefs in support of his case.
True, what is said in the jury room is supposed to stay in the jury room (think 12 Angry Men). And in the overwhelming majority of cases, that is exactly what will continue to occur. But when blatant bigotry or racism infects our legal system, it should not be ignored. A ruling for Peña-Rodriguez would establish an important precedent, and bring us closer to a uniform national system for dealing with juror misconduct. A ruling against Peña-Rodriguez would not only harm him; it could undermine public confidence in the integrity of our jury system as well.
A fair trial is a fundamental component of due process. The Supreme Court should rule in favor of Peña-Rodriguez, to guarantee the right of all Americans to an impartial jury.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.