Posted on October 11, 2016

Supreme Court to Hear Case Involving Racial Bias in the Jury Room

Pete Williams, NBC News, October 11, 2016

Does what happens in the jury room stay in the jury room?

The U.S. Supreme Court takes up that question Tuesday in the case of a Hispanic man from Colorado who was convicted after a juror said during deliberations, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican.”

The court must decide whether guaranteeing a fair trial requires allowing exceptions to centuries-old rules that keep jury deliberations secret.

Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez was charged with harassing and trying to grope two teenage girls in the women’s bathroom at a horse racing track near Denver. {snip}

After he was convicted of two misdemeanor counts but acquitted on a felony charge, two jurors came forward to say that racist comments were made during deliberations.

According to them, one of the jurors said he was a former law enforcement officer and that where he once patrolled, “nine times out of 10, Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls” and that he thought the defendant was guilty “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.”


Peña-Rodriguez sought a new trial, but the judge denied the request as did two state courts of appeal.

The English legal tradition that America inherited protected the secrecy of deliberations and held that jurors could not be hauled back into court to explain their verdicts. The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed that understanding.


In 2014, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in the case of South Dakota motorcycle rider whose leg was amputated after he was hit by a truck. During deliberations, a juror said her daughter was at fault in a fatal accident and that if she had been sued, “it would have ruined her life.”

But the justice said then that there could be “cases of juror bias so extreme” that blocking an inquiry into the deliberations would violate the Constitution’s fair trial guarantee.

Colorado argues in the current case that enough safeguards are in place to root out bias, including voir dire–the extensive questioning of potential jurors before the trial.


Most states have rules that forbid post-trial inquiries into potential juror bias. But Fisher said eight states have made exceptions to allow jurors to testify about racial bias in the jury room–California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Washington, Minnesota, New York and Oklahoma.