Supreme Court Grants New Trial in Sexual Assault Case Due to Race-Based Juror Bias

Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado (2016)

by David S. Marshall

Traditionally in American law, the jury is a kind of “black box” – that is, the jury hears the case presented by both sides, deliberates in isolation, and then announces a verdict, without any explanation of how the jury reached that verdict. This long-standing practice is thought to increase the likelihood of a just verdict by removing outside influences or pressures from the jury’s consideration of the facts, and to allow the jury to rely only on their own judgment of the evidence. It also avoids long re-litigation of jury verdicts.

A recent sexual assault case before the Supreme Court, however, has challenged the idea that the particulars of jury decision-making should not be questioned by the legal system. When it becomes known after trial that race-based assumptions about the defendant’s tendency sexual aggression were expressed by a jury member in the process of reaching a verdict, the court decided, those assumptions make it likely that the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair jury trial on the charges against him has been violated.

Juror Expresses Anti-Hispanic Views Despite Impartiality Instruction

A Colorado jury found Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez guilty of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. Mr. Peña-Rodriguez, an employee at a Colorado horse-racing track, had been arrested and charged with assaulting two teenagers in a bathroom at the track.

During jury selection at trial, potential jurors were repeatedly asked whether they believed they could be fair and impartial fact-finders in the case. They were asked by the attorneys, by written questionnaire, and again by the judge, who also encouraged jurors concerned about their ability to be impartial to speak privately with the court. None of the jurors eventually selected for Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s trial expressed any reservations based on racial bias or impartiality of any kind, and none of them spoke privately with the trial judge on the subject.

After a three-day trial, the jury found Mr. Peña-Rodriguez guilty. Following the jury’s dismissal, two jurors approached Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s attorney to convey their concerns about the anti-Hispanic sentiments a particular juror expressed during deliberations, sentiments hostile to Mr. Peña-Rodriguez and his alibi witness, both Hispanic men.

This juror, an ex-law enforcement officer, told the other jurors that he believed the defendant was guilty of sexual assault because “in his experience, Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women.” The juror further explained that, in his experience, “nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.” Finally, the juror shared that he did not find Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s alibi witness credible because, among other things, the witness was “an illegal.” (In fact, the witness had testified at trial that he was a legal resident of the United States.)

When Can a Juror’s Statements Undermine the Verdict?

Mr. Peña-Rodriguez appealed the verdict in his case, asking for a new trial, based on the discriminatory statements made during the deliberation of his jury verdict. In an appeal proceeding tasked with determining the validity of a prior verdict, Rule of Evidence 606(b) generally prohibits a juror from testifying about statements made during deliberations. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The question on appeal was whether the anti-Hispanic statements made in Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s case, expressing stereotypical views about the sextual entitlement of Hispanic men, qualified for such an exception.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that, despite the fact that an exception to Rule 606(b) did not apply in this case, Mr. Peña-Rodriguez was still entitled to a new trial. Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury was potentially violated by the juror’s statement that he would rely on racial stereotypes of sexual entitlement to convict Mr. Peña-Rodriguez. In such circumstances, the court held, a defendant is entitled to a new trial with a fair jury.

The Court reasoned that, despite the helpful advantages Rule 606(b) provides to juries (free and vigorous debate among jurors, a sense of stability, and finality to verdicts), juror racial bias against the defendant is a different and more serious concern. However, not any passing indication of racial bias will expose a jury’s verdict to further scrutiny. The defendant must show, the court said, “that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict.”

In Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s case, the Court found the juror’s statements were “egregious and unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias.” The juror had not only used “a dangerous racial stereotype to conclude Mr. Peña-Rodriguez was guilty and his alibi witness should not be believed, but he also encouraged other jurors to join him in convicting on that basis.” The juror’s statements, presuming Mr. Peña-Rodriguez was sexually aggressive simply because he was Hispanic, violated Mr. Peña-Rodriguez’s constitutional right to an impartial jury, so the Supreme Court granted him a new trial.

Learn more about this case at SCOTUSblog.