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The Supreme Court will hear a case next month where justices will determine if racially charged comments during jury deliberations are grounds for breaking juror confidentiality.

In a 2010 sexual assault trial in Colorado, a juror identified as H.C. during deliberations said of the defendant, Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

Peña Rodriguez was accused of harassing and trying to grope teenage girls in a bathroom at a racetrack in 2007. The court convicted Peña Rodriguez of three misdemeanors but deadlocked over a felony charge. He was sentenced to only two years’ probation.

After the trial, questions arose about whether H.C.’s remarks impacted the verdict and prevented the jury from reaching a conclusion on the most serious charge — which would have resulted in a more serious sentencing if he were found guilty of the felony as well. Two jurors revealed H.C.’s comments.

“He said that where he used to patrol, nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls,” one juror, L.T., reported.

Another juror, M.M., recalled that H.C. “made other statements concerning Mexican men being physically controlling of women because they have a sense of entitlement and think they can ‘do whatever they want’ with women.’”

H.C. showed racial bias against a witness as well. The witness testified that Peña Rodriguez was somewhere else at the time of the alleged incident. But H.C. was not convinced, L.T. recalled. “He said he did not think the alibi witness was credible because, among other things, he was ‘an illegal,’” according to L.T.

In addition to calling into question whether H.C.’s statements kept the jury from possibly convicting Peña Rodriguez of the felony charge, they have now provided Peña Rodriguez with the opportunity to appeal his conviction of the misdemeanors.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the sanctity of juror deliberations, saying, “Protecting the secrecy of jury deliberations is of paramount importance to our justice system.”

Justice Monica M. Márquez dissented, writing that “racial bias is detestable in any context, but in our criminal justice system it is especially pernicious.” Not denying the importance of juror deliberations being kept private, she said this secrecy cannot “trump a defendant’s opportunity to vindicate his fundamental constitutional right to an impartial jury untainted by the influence of racial bias.”

Jeffrey L. Fisher, a lawyer for Peña Rodriguez, believes his client’s right has been violated.

“When racial prejudice infects a jury’s decision whether to convict, the integrity of the criminal justice system is brought into direct question,” he said.

Juror Confidentiality Historically Upheld in Court

The debate in this case is between the secrecy of juror deliberations and Peña Rodriguez’s right to an impartial jury. In the past, courts have sided with the sanctity of deliberations. In Colorado’s ruling, judges compared Peña Rodriguez’s case to a Supreme Court case of juror impartiality, Warger v. Shauers.

Warger v. Shauers involved a motor vehicle accident in which Randy Shauers struck Gregory Warger. Warger, who lost part of his leg, sued Shauers and lost. According to court documents, after the trial it came out that one juror “had revealed during deliberations that her daughter had been at fault in a fatal motor vehicle accident, and that a lawsuit would have ruined her daughter’s life.”

Warger believed that this juror should have been more honest during jury selection. However, the court unanimously rejected Warger’s argument and concluded that this did not constitute breaking juror confidentiality. “Even if jurors lie in voir dire in a way that conceals bias, juror impartiality is adequately assured by the parties’ ability to bring to the court’s attention any evidence of bias before the verdict is rendered, and to employ nonjuror evidence even after the verdict is rendered,” the opinion states.

“What’s involved here is a juror reporting what she heard during the deliberations,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “And it seems to me that’s exactly the kind of thing that is not permitted.”

The court also referred to a 1987 case, Tanner v. United States, where jurors were intoxicated during deliberations. The court concluded that this did not justify breaking confidentiality either.

However, the opinion for Warger v. Shauers includes a footnote that may leave future cases up for interpretation.

“There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged,” the footnote reads. “If and when such a case arises, the court can consider whether the usual safeguards are or are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the process.”

In Márquez’s dissent in the Colorado court, she pointed out that the Supreme Court did not in Warger v. Shauers state that this should set the precedent for future cases.

“Absent a clear command from the Supreme Court, we will not defy the unmistakable trend in the Court’s case law — as articulated in both Tanner and Warger — preserving the sanctity of jury deliebrations and thus refusing to deem Rule 606(b) unconstitutional,” she wrote.

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