A right to a jury trial for major criminal offenses and the jury as an institution are at the center of the Anglo-American criminal justice system. Most of a jury’s tasks are performed secretly. This is done intentionally so as to protect the integrity of the deliberative process and encourage open and frank discussions between and among jurors. When the verdict comes in, the only people who really know the full extent of what happened in the jury room are the jurors, themselves. This is intentional – particularly in New Jersey where the state courts go to great lengths to protect the secrecy of jury deliberations.
In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the United States Supreme Court recently held that the secrecy of jury deliberations may be breached in order to investigate racially biased statements that a juror made about a defendant. The defendant was convicted of groping two teenage girls in a bathroom at a Colorado racetrack where he was employed. He denied the charges claiming mistaken identity, and called alibi witnesses at trial. His jury acquitted him of a felony, but convicted him of misdemeanors. The trial court sentenced him to a term of probation, and ordered him to register as a sex offender.
After trial, two jurors told defense counsel that another juror made comments about Mexicans during deliberations. He informed his fellow jurors that he was a former law enforcement officer who had seen many cases like this one. He referred to the defendant as an “illegal” (untrue – the defendant was a legal resident), and also stated that “nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.” Continue reading