Rules against impeachment of verdicts must give way to evidence that a verdict was based on racial animus, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 6.
In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Court ruled that a trial judge must consider evidence from jurors who came forward after trial to tell defense counsel that another juror had made statements during deliberations showing that racial bias was a motiving factor in his vote.
The opinion leaves some questions unanswered, including the propriety of rules prohibiting attorneys from contacting jurors.
Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez was convicted after a jury trial of unlawful sexual contact and harassment.
After the court discharged the jury, two jurors stayed to talk to defense counsel in private. They said that, during deliberations, another juror said Pena-Rodriguez was guilty “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”  This juror also said that “nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women,”  and said he did not believe Pena-Rodriguez’s alibi witness because he was “an illegal.”
Defense counsel obtained affidavits from the reporting jurors, and sought a new trial on that basis.
The trial court acknowledged apparent racial bias, but denied a new trial on grounds of a state rule that prohibited impeaching verdicts by inquiring into what occurred during deliberations.
The Colorado appellate courts affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed, in a 5-3 ruling.
Common law prohibited inquiry into juror deliberations, but some states adopted a more flexible approach that allowed inquiry in certain situations.  Federal Rule 606(b) generally adopts the common law rule, with exceptions for extraneous information, outside influences, and mistakes in entering a verdict.
The Court noted that it has enforced a no-impeachment rule in prior cases alleging jurors reached a compromise verdict, were under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or failed to disclose a pro-defendant bias.  These cases are different than racial bias, the Court said, because “history” and “common experience” show they are uncommon, and attempts to rid the system of “every irregularity of this sort would be to expose it to unrelenting scrutiny.”
But “racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns,” the Court said.  “An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under law.”
“Where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee,” the Court held.
But, the Court said, “[n]ot every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar.”
The racial statements must “cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict,” the Court said.  “[T]he statements must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.  Whether that threshold showing has been satisfied is a matter committed to the substantial discretion of the trial court in light of all the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence.”
Unanswered questions
The Court’s opinion expressly left some questions unanswered.
The Court noted it was not addressing what procedures courts must use when confronted with a new trial motion based on juror racial bias, but suggested that courts look for guidance to states which have allowed such evidence.
The Court also said it was not deciding “the appropriate standard for determining when evidence of racial bias is sufficient to require that the verdict be set aside.”
Finally, the Court noted that some jurisdictions have rules prohibiting attorneys from contacting jurors, and the Court was not disturbing those rules.
Justices Alito, Roberts and Thomas dissented.  They said the majority was “well-intentioned,” but their ruling would lead to harassment of jurors and a lack of finality.
They questioned whether rules that prohibit attorneys from contacting jurors would “survive” the Court’s decision.  “It is not clear why such rules should be enforced when they come into conflict with a defendant’s attempt to introduce evidence of racial bias,” they said.
Justice Thomas, writing separately, said the Court’s ruling “cannot be squared with the original understanding of the Sixth or Fourteenth Amendments” because the common law did not allow impeachment of verdicts.