On Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado juror’s racially charged comments may have violated a Hispanic defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The jury bias case involves Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez. He was originally convicted in 2007 of sexually assaulting two teenage girls in a racetrack bathroom. He vehemently denied the charges and the jury ultimately acquitted him of the felony charge but convicted him of the misdemeanors.
Peña appealed his conviction and alleged that one of the jurors made derogatory remarks about Mexicans during the jury’s deliberation. After exhausting all options in the Colorado judicial system, Peña and his lawyers took this jury bias case to the Supreme Court.
Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the liberal-wing of the Court in the 5-3 decision and decided that one juror’s racially charged comments were enough to throw the trial’s fairness into doubt.
The question that the Supreme Court addressed in this jury bias case was whether racist comments in a jury deliberation room might violate a defendant’s right to a free and fair trial.
Peña appealed his 2007 sexual assault conviction because two jurors came forward and accused another juror of making comments critical of Mexicans.
According to them, one juror said during deliberations: “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
This same juror allegedly also questioned the trustworthiness of a witness on the basis that he was in the country illegally.
Traditionally, comments made inside a deliberation room are typically not admissible as evidence and are legally considered “unimpeachable.” At least 20 states have an exception for racist statements, however Colorado is not one of them.
Peña’s lawyers argued that the offensive juror’s comments “...were directly tied to the determination of the defendant’s guilt.” While the Supreme Court did not declare Peña innocent, they did send the case back to the Colorado courts for reconsideration.
Previously, the Colorado State Supreme Court had issued a 4-3 decision prohibiting judges from addressing racial comments made in jury rooms. Peña's case was shot down.
In the United States, every man, woman, and child charged with a crime has the right to a trial free from racial bias. Even though the jury deliberation room is typically a confidential place, the US Supreme Court has decided that in this case, the conduct of one of the jurors deprived Peña of his right to a fair trial.
Justice Kennedy wrote in his decision that protecting against racial bias in the courtroom is necessary “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."
Racially charged comments in jury rooms are now considered an unconstitutional violation of a defendant’s right to a free and fair trial.
Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger did not defend the juror’s comments. He admitted before the court that the comments were “no doubt reprehensible.” But he questioned whether the comment was sufficient to force the case to be reheard.
Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined Justice Kennedy in the decision. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito dissented.
Peña's jury bias case and appeal will now go back to the Colorado court system to be reheard.