The U.S. Supreme Court held hearings earlier this week for a case that, in the view of some of the justices, had evidence of “screaming race bias in the jury room.”
The case involved the trial of a Colorado horse trainer, Miguel Pena-Rodriguez, who was convicted on three misdemeanor counts for groping teenage girls in a women’s bathroom in 2007. His initial trial resulted in a deadlocked jury, and then, after 12 more hours of deliberation, only a partial verdict on lesser charges.
Several jurors on the case came forward after the conclusion of the trial, saying that another member of the jury expressed views that Pena-Rodriguez was guilty because “he’s a Mexican, and Mexican men think they can do whatever they want with women.” The same juror also referred to the defendant and his alibi witness, both of whom are Hispanic, as “illegals,” despite the fact that they both testified they were legal U.S. permanent residents.
The Colorado Supreme Court denied an appeal request on grounds that juror deliberations are protected by secrecy and cannot be used as testimony after a trial has already been resolved. The case was then taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the judges will decide whether such instances of racial bias constitute a violation of the right to a fair trial with an impartial jury.
Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito expressed concern that opening the door to post-verdict juror inquiry would impinge open discussion during deliberations — or that jurors would simply hide their biases and still produce the same effect.
Justice Elena Kagan called the case “the best smoking-gun evidence you’re ever going to see” of racial bias in the courtroom and appeared ready to allow post-trial juror inquiries. Every year, some 10,000 people in the U.S. may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes — some of which may be due to racial and other types of prejudice.
The Court is expected to reach a decision later this term. In the event of a tie, the ruling of the lower court — in this case Colorado’s decision not to grant an appeal — will be upheld.