SCOTUS to hear case on biased jurors poisoning the well

This particular case has been making its way through the system for a while now, but this fall the Supremes will finally take it up. It may not have all the flash and media circus atmosphere of abortion challenges or Second Amendment battles, but it’s one which everyone should be watching because of the fundamental implications it holds for some of our most basic constitutional rights. It’s the case of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, and the result of this one could affect how defendants will fare when facing a trial by a jury of their peers.

The strange aspect of this challenge has very little to do with the crime with which Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez was originally charged, (unlawful sexual contact with two teenage girls) but more to do with one member of the jury who decided his fate. (ABC News)

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether jurors’ claims of racially charged comments by another juror can overcome the need for secrecy in jury deliberations.

The justices will hear an appeal from a Hispanic man in Colorado who says he did not have a fair trial because a juror made offensive comments about Mexicans.

The remarks came to light when two other jurors told the defendant’s lawyer about them. Courts rarely allow jurors to reveal what went on during their deliberations.

But defendant Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez argues that the comments were so bad they deprived him of his constitutional right to trial by an impartial jury.

In this case, after the guilty verdict was returned and the case was disposed of, two of the jurors contacted the defense attorney and reported that one of the other jurors had said blatantly racist things before voting to convict. And if we are to accept the word of these two participants, the comments were clearly biased in nature.

“I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want,” is one of several racially tinged statements attributed to the juror identified in court records by the initials H.C. In another comment, the juror is said to have cast doubt on an alibi provided by a Hispanic witness for Pena Rodriguez because the witness was “an illegal.” The witness testified that he was in the country legally.

Oddly enough, those sound more like the sorts of comments somebody might make during voir dire if they wanted to ensure they weren’t selected for duty. This juror clearly passed muster and made it into the booth before letting fly with is feelings about Mexicans. If we look at nothing more than this it’s not difficult to argue that Pena Rodriguez didn’t receive a fair trial, despite the overwhelming evidence which the prosecution cites in their rebuttal. But is that really true?

If the court agrees that this constitutes grounds to throw out the decision and order a new trial for the defendant, one of the cornerstones of our trial by jury systems would seem to be essentially compromised. What happens in the jury deliberation room – no matter how peaceful, heated, pleasant or ugly – is supposed to remain secret for a reason. Once you open the door to second guessing the jurors, exposing them to the public or casting a shadow on their ability to make a decision, a new can of worms has been opened. Rather than monitoring the conduct of the judge, the attorneys and the witnesses to ensure that a trial is conducted in a fair and impartial manner, we will now open the door to putting the jurors themselves on trial.

We have a process in place for getting the best jurors we can manage and the attorneys walk through that tedious proceeding long before the first witness ever takes the stand. Is it perfect? Far from it. Most people in the jury pool are there reluctantly at best and the idea that any of them will come to the task as experts in criminal law or the specifics of the crime under consideration is laughable. But that’s the whole point. The Founders didn’t assure you a trial decided by the best experts money can buy. They gave you a jury of your peers. The same people who live, work, play and pray in your community, complete with all their admirable attributes as well as their flaws.

Once that jury is seated, unless one of them blatantly violates the rules inside the jury box or out on the streets over the course of the trial, that’s pretty much it. They hear the case, go into secret proceedings and decide your fate. I find it disturbing that we may now open the door to every juror who comes out on the losing end of a decision suddenly realizing they can go cast aspersions (justified or not) against someone on the winning side and have the case tossed out on its ear. It’s hard enough to bring a case to trial and arrive at a resolution these days when so many of them are decided in the court of public opinion ahead of time. If we sully the jury deliberation process we could shut down the system entirely, and we have nothing democratic waiting in the wings to replace it.