Supreme Court Update – Clear Evidence of Racial Bias on Part of Jurors May Now Lead to Reversal

In a decision announced earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court opened a hole in state and federal jury deliberation secrecy laws for defendants who can show through clear evidence that the defendant was denied a fair trial due to racial bias against the defendant’s race on the part of one or more jurors. In Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court held that when clear evidence emerges following a jury verdict that racial bias played a part in jury deliberations, the trial judge must make an exception to ordinary jury secrecy rules and determine whether the defendant was denied a fair trial. Although this will often be a difficult showing to make, the Court’s decision provides a defendant with the potential for relief when it can be shown that the jury’s decision to convict was based in part on the race of the defendant.

In previous decisions, the overwhelming majority of state and federal appellate courts had reached the opposite conclusion and prohibited defendants from attacking jury verdicts based on after-discovered evidence of racism on the part of the jurors. For example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently reached the opposite conclusion in the case of Commonwealth v. Steele. Steele arose in the context of a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. In Steele, the Petitioner alleged that his due process rights and right to a fair and impartial jury were violated by the racial prejudice of one of the jurors. After Steele was convicted of murder, he learned from one of the jurors that other jurors had commented on his race early in the trial and also made fun of his defense attorney. Jurors had also made various racist remarks during deliberations and suggested that he should hang. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the PCRA Petition, noting that Pennsylvania has a “no impeachment” rule with respect to jury deliberations. The Steele court noted:  

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict, … a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions in reaching a decision upon the verdict or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith, and a juror's affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror about any of these subjects may not be received.

The only exception to the “no impeachment” rule is for cases in which there is evidence that some outside force influenced juror deliberations. For example, allegations of bribery or threats could be used to attack a jury verdict. Accordingly, prior to Pena-Rodriguez, a Pennsylvania jury verdict could not be challenged based on even overt racism on the part of the jurors.

Pena-Rodriguez appears to completely overrule Pennsylvania’s “no impeachment” rule as set forth in Steele. In Pena-Rodriguez, the defendant was convicted by a jury of harassment and unlawful sexual contact. After the trial, two jurors told the defendant’s lawyer that during deliberations, one of the jurors had expressed anti-Hispanic bias towards the defendant his alibi witness. Both of these jurors signed affidavits, and Pena-Rodriguez' criminal defense attorneys moved for a new trial. The trial court, however, denied the motion for a new trial because Colorado had a similar “no impeachment” rule.

Following a number of appeals through the Colorado state appellate system which upheld the trial court’s ruling, the United States Supreme Court reversed. The Court ruled that “where a juror makes a clear statement indicating that 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 nay resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the trial court for the court to conduct a hearing into whether the defendant received a fair trial.

The Court ruled:

Before the no-impeachment bar can be set aside to allow further judicial inquiry, there must be a threshold showing 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. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict. Whether the threshold showing has been satisfied is 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.

Given the Supreme Court’s broad ruling, it is clear that Pennsylvania’s “no impeachment” rule with respect to juror deliberations is now unconstitutional in violation of the Sixth Amendment. The practical effect of this decision for most defendants may be limited because it is fairly uncommon for defense counsel to have much of an opportunity to speak with jurors following trial or for jurors to come forward with this type of information. However, it does open the door for challenges to jury verdicts in cases where there is clear evidence that racism played a role in the deliberations. Further, this case illustrates the importance of comprehensive voir dire or questioning of the jurors during jury selection in the hopes that biased jurors may be kept off the jury.   

As always, if you are facing criminal charges, it is critical that you hire a criminal defense attorney who focuses his or her practice on criminal law and stays on top of new developments in the law. If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, call 267-225-2545 for a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session with one of our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.