Court seems favorable to defendant claiming jury race bias

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed likely to rule that racial bias in the jury room provides a limited basis for breaching the centuries-old legal principle of secrecy in jury deliberations.

The justices heard an appeal from an immigrant in Colorado who said he did not have a fair trial because he was convicted by a jury on which one man reportedly tied the defendant's guilt to his Hispanic heritage.

The Supreme Court has resisted the call in earlier cases to examine what was said in the jury room. But several justices appeared persuaded that allegations of racial bias against defendant Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez justify piercing the sanctity of jury deliberations when the constitutional right to a fair trial is at stake.

Justice Stephen Breyer said questioning jurors in such cases may be needed to "create a judicial system that is seen as fair."

The court's conservative justices worried that such a ruling could lead to widespread claims of bias. Why would discrimination on the basis sex, religious and sexual orientation get a different reception, Chief Justice John Roberts wondered.

Justice Samuel Alito asked lawyer Jeffrey Fisher, representing Pena Rodriguez, about other improper actions by a jury, including basing a decision on a defendant's political affiliation.

"And if we allow the exception that you are advocating, what do you say to ... the prisoner who is going to be spending the rest of his life in prison as a result of the jury verdict that was determined by flipping a coin?"

Fisher said the court could limit its opinion to race, for now. "The reason why is this court has said time and again that race is different," Fisher said. He said 18 states allow racial bias claims to be investigated, and their courts have not been overwhelmed by claims.

The dispute arose after a jury convicted Pena Rodriguez of inappropriately touching teenage girls.

Two jurors said that a jury colleague had determined that he was guilty because Pena Rodriguez is "Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want."

No other juror was alleged to have said anything improper and all 12 jurors, including the two who reported the inappropriate comments, voted to convict him.

Lawyers for Colorado and the Obama administration acknowledged that the statements attributed to the juror identified only as H.C. were indefensible. But they told the court Tuesday that jury secrecy is crucial to the judicial system and said there are better ways to address racial bias on juries, including closer screening of potential jurors.

Jurors also could be encouraged to report misconduct during deliberations before a verdict is reached, they said.

"The juror's alleged statements in this case are no doubt reprehensible," said Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger, but he added that preserving the secrecy of jury deliberations overcomes allegations of racial and other kinds of bias.

Justice Department lawyer Rachel Kovner said the federal government is committed to eradicating racial bias. "But there are ways to address that problem without undermining structural protections of the jury system that have withstood legal challenges for hundreds of years," Kovner said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy did not say much during the hourlong argument. But he appeared to reject Kovner's warning that the court shouldn't try to reconstruct jury room deliberations involving race.

"So the more insidious the evil, the ... more caution we should have in inquiring of the jury?" Kennedy said.

A decision in Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado, 15-606, is expected by spring.

Published: Thu, Oct 13, 2016