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SCOTUS: A racist juror can lead to an overturned conviction

| May 8, 2017 | Criminal Appeals

One of the things courts value most is finality. Once a dispute has been resolved, courts are loath to start digging into the process of resolving the dispute — and this has traditionally led to some pernicious consequences, even without ill intent.

Take the so-called “jury impeachment” rule. In cases where they are involved, juries’ purpose is to weigh the evidence and come to a decision about what the facts are. A jury’s fact finding is generally unappealable — you have to show that no reasonable jury could have made the determination as they did. Moreover, one juror can’t complain to the court about another juror’s stupidity, illogic, or bias — jury room deliberations are secret and final.

Even if a criminal defendant could bring forward convincing evidence that one or more jurors were racists and voted against the defendant primarily from racial bias, that would not be enough for an appeal. What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.

Until now. The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that the jury impeachment rule must give way to good sense and fairness.

Juror persuades others to guilty verdict because ‘9 out of 10 Mexicans …’

The case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado came to light because, after his client was convicted, a defense attorney asked to get feedback from the jury. A couple of the jurors were furious and informed the defense lawyer that one juror, “H.C.” had used racist arguments against the defendant.

H.C. told the other jurors he was a former law enforcement officer and that, in his experience, Mexican men had a bravado about them that made them believe they could behave sexually the way the defendant was accused of behaving. Moreover, he said, it was his experience that nine out of 10 Mexican men is guilty of sexual misconduct against young girls or women.

H.C. went on to say that the other jurors shouldn’t believe the word of Peña-Rodriguez’s alibi witness because he was “an illegal” — despite the fact that the alibi witness had testified he was a green card holder.

The defense appealed but was blocked by the jury impeachment rule. Finally, the Supreme Court stepped in and released its 5-3 opinion last week.

“The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority, but “the nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination.

“Blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule.”

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