Major US Supreme Court Ruling Concerning Secrecy of Jury Deliberations

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.”

Defense counsel wanted the trial court to investigate the comments to determine whether they had effectively deprived their client of a fair trial.  The judge authorized them to obtain affidavits from the two jurors.  The affidavits recalled the discriminatory statements concerning the defendant, and also noted similar statements concluding that the alibi witnesses were not credible because they were both Hispanic.  In this light, defense counsel moved for a new trial.  The trial court denied this motion and the intermediate appellate court affirmed.  The Colorado Supreme Court held that the affidavits were inadmissible under Colorado Evidence Rule 606(b), which prohibits testimony by jurors on matters occurring during deliberations.  (Curiously, that Court also found that defendant had waived the right to challenge to challenge the statements by failing to adequately question prospective jurors about racial biases during voir dire.  Apparently, none of the current crop of judges on the Colorado Supreme Court has picked a jury in a criminal case recently.)

The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that where a juror makes a clear statement demonstrating that s/he relied upon racial stereotypes or racial animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment demands that the no-impeachment rule (which is designed to prevent jurors from testifying about their deliberations after the verdict) must give way so that the trial court can consider evidence of the juror’s statement(s), and whether or not they denied the defendant a fair and unbiased jury trial.

Writing for the majority in this 5-3 decision, Justice Kennedy observed that the notion that jury deliberations must remain secret predates our Constitution, and the Court had previously declined to examine what occurs in a jury room.  At the same time, however, the Court noted that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed even after a trial so as to prevent a loss of confidence in jury verdicts.    “Blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system.”  Thus, the no-impeachment rule can be set aside to protect the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

Significantly, the Court found that not every offhand racial comment a juror may make will warrant this result; rather, a juror must display overt racial animus that calls into question their ability to make a fair and impartial judgments concerning the defendant.  Thus, while the Court showed an obvious willingness to address the issue of racial bias at trial, it nevertheless placed a very heavy burden on a defense attorney who seeks to assert this challenge.  Hopefully, this decision will have some effect upon the very real and ongoing impact that racial and ethnic prejudice has on jury verdicts.

Middlesex County criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman represents individuals with criminal charges in the Superior Court throughout New Jersey, the United States District Courts located in New Jersey and New York City, and the New York State criminal courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  If you have a criminal charge, do not even try to discuss it with representatives of law enforcement.  Call us instead.  You’ll be glad you did.

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