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High court: Obviously racist jury behavior can reverse conviction

If a jury convicts someone and the court later learns that one juror's vote was based entirely on racial animus, should the conviction be overturned? Traditionally, the answer has been no. Appellate courts have long held that what happens in the jury room, for the most part, stays in the jury room.

And yet, "the nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination," writes Justice Anthony Kennedy in the recent case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. "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."

This represents a major reversal in American jurisprudence. The so-called "jury impeachment" rule, which forbids jurors from calling their own verdicts into question with later testimony, has stood for centuries in English Common Law countries like the United States.

What evidence of racial bias was found in the Peña-Rodriguez jury?

In Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a man of Mexican descent was accused of harassment, unlawful sexual conduct, and attempted sexual assault in an incident involving two teenage daughters of a coworker at a Colorado racetrack.

The jury found Peña-Rodriguez guilty of harassment and unlawful sexual conduct, but were hung up on the attempted sexual assault charge. That's when a juror identified as "H.C." stepped in.

H.C. explained that, as a former law enforcement officer, his experience indicated that there was a species of bravado among Mexican men that led them to believe they could persuade women to let them do as they liked. Furthermore, he said, nine out of 10 Mexicans, in his experience, were guilty of aggression toward girls and women. Finally, he talked down one of Peña-Rodriguez's alibi witnesses, claiming he was "an illegal" even though he had testified he was a lawful permanent resident.

Other jurors reported this to the defense, who appealed the conviction. The Colorado Supreme Court denied the appeal under the jury impeachment rule.

After decades of seeing this very problem come before the Supreme Court, the majority forged a new path.

"Time and again, this court has been called upon to enforce the Constitution's guarantee against state-sponsored racial discrimination in the jury system," he writes. "The court now holds that 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 other words, the court ruled 5-3 that obvious racial animus that profoundly affects the outcome in essence denies the defendant a fair trial.

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