A Colorado man who was required to register as a sex offender after being convicted of unlawful sexual contact with two teenage girls will get a shot at a new trial, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled today. Miguel Peña-Rodriguez had asked a state trial court for a new trial after two jurors told his lawyers that a third juror had made racially biased remarks about Peña-Rodriguez and his main witness, who are both Hispanic. But the state trial court rejected Peña-Rodriguez’s request, citing a state evidentiary rule that generally bars jurors from testifying about statements made during deliberations that might call the verdict into question. In a major ruling on juror bias and fair trials, the Supreme Court reversed that holding by a vote of 5-3 and sent Peña-Rodriguez’s case back to the lower courts for them to consider the two jurors’ testimony for the first time.
The NY Times has an article about Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. As some may recall, Pena-Rodriguez involves racial bias in the jury deliberation room. The specific issue before the high court in Pena-Rodriguez is:
[W]hether a no- impeachment rule constitutionally may bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.
In Dietz v. Bouldin, the SCT in a 6-2 opinion held that "[a] federal district court has a limited inherent power to rescind a jury discharge order and recall a jury in a civil case for further deliberations after identifying an error in the jury’s verdict. The District Court did not abuse that power here."
The facts of Bouldin are as follows:
Petitioner Rocky Dietz sued respondent Hillary Bouldin for negligence for injuries suffered in an automobile accident. Bouldin removed the case to Federal District Court. At trial, Bouldin admitted liability and stipulated to damages of $10,136 for Dietz’ medical expenses. The only disputed issue remaining was whether Dietz was entitled to more. During deliberations, the jury sent the judge a note asking whether Dietz’ medical expenses had been paid and, if so, by whom. Although the judge was concerned that the jury may not have understood that a verdict of less than the stipulated amount would require a mistrial, the judge, with the parties’ consent, responded only that the information being sought was not relevant to the verdict. The jury returned a verdict in Dietz’ favor but awarded him $0 in damages.
After the verdict, the judge discharged the jury, and the jurors left the courtroom. Moments later, the judge realized the error in the $0 verdict and ordered the clerk to bring back the jurors, who were all in the building—including one who may have left for a short time and returned. Over the objection of Dietz’ counsel and in the interest of judicial economy and efficiency, the judge decided to recall the jury. After questioning the jurors as a group, the judge was satisfied that none had spoken about the case to anyone and ordered them to return the next morning. After receiving clarifying instructions, the reassembled jury returned a verdict awarding Dietz $15,000 in dam- ages. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Today, the SCT released its opinion in Foster v. Chatman. Here is a brief summary of the opinion taken from the ABA's Criminal Justice Section.
Summary: The Court held that the Georgia Supreme Court's holding that there was no purposeful discrimination in the prosecution's elimination of all black prospective jurors during Foster's trial was clearly erroneous. The Court determined that notes from the prosecution's file strongly demonstrated a discriminatory motivation behind the peremptory striking of all of the qualified black jurors, and a "concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury."
The U.S. Supreme Court has granted cert in Dietz v. Bouldin. The question before the high court is whether, after a judge has discharged a jury from service in a case and the jurors have left the judge's presence, the judge may recall the jurors for further service in the same case. At present, the circuits are split on this question.
The SCT has agreed to hear the case of Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado. The issue in Pena Rodriguez is whether a no-impeachment rule constitutionally may bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. This case can best be summed up by the prior Colorado Supreme Court opinionwhich found in favor of the state and affirmed the defendant's conviction. The first two paragraphs of the opinion are excerpted below.
This case involves the interplay between two fundamental tenets of the justice system: protecting the secrecy of jury deliberations and ensuring a defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury. After entry of a guilty verdict, defense counsel obtained juror affidavits suggesting that one of the jurors exhibited racial bias against the defendant during deliberations. The trial court refused to consider these affidavits, finding that Colorado Rule of Evidence (“CRE”) 606(b) barred their admission, and the court of appeals affirmed. People v. Pena-Rodriguez, 2012 COA 193, ¶ 3, __ P.3d __. We granted certiorari to consider whether CRE 606(b) applies to such affidavits and, if so, whether the Sixth Amendment nevertheless requires their admission.1
¶2 We hold that the affidavits regarding the juror’s biased statements fall within the broad sweep of CRE 606(b) and that they do not satisfy the rule’s “extraneous prejudicial information” exception. We further hold that the trial court’s application of CRE 606(b) did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.
This past Monday Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was at NYU Law School to discuss the American jury. The event was part of an ongoing assessment by the Civil Jury Project to examine the current state of the civil jury system in the United States.