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Jury secrecy can be overturned if racial bias is suspected

10th Mar 2017

The US supreme court has ruled this week that the secrecy of jury deliberations can now be overturned due to suspected racial bias of its members.

The debate rose from a case in Colorado that eventually convicted defendant Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez following allegations of sexual assault on teenage girls. A juror reportedly cited the defendant’s Hispanic heritage as the reason for his guilt. The court eventually ruled 5-3.

The statements have only come to light after Pena Rodriguez’ conviction. According to two other members of the jury, their colleague stated that the man was “Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

Pena Rodriguez is now claiming that the juror’s private racial bias does not mean his hearing was fair.

Justice Anthony Kennedy stated at the time “that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted […] despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule”.

Kennedy was joined in a majority with four other liberal justices, however the court did not order a new trial. Instead, Kennedy said that in the future, trial courts could “consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantees”.

The group were opposed by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Alito stated that “the court not only pries open the door; it rules that respecting the privacy of the jury room, as our legal system has done for centuries, violates the constitution” in regards to their defeat.

Lawyers belonging to Colorado and the Obama administration, however, who were keen to preserve the secrecy of the jury, were still willing to acknowledge that the juror’s statement was “indefensible”. However, they have suggested that the situation could have been dealt with differently, potentially including a stricter vetting of potential jurors.