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On March 6, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado. Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct and harassment in state trial court. Two jurors later informed Pena-Rodriguez’s counsel that another juror made racially-biased statements about Pena-Rodriguez and an alibi witness during jury deliberations. The trial court authorized counsel to contact the two jurors for their affidavits detailing what the allegedly biased juror had said. Pena-Rodriguez moved for a new trial after learning from the affidavits that the juror had suggested Pena-Rodriguez was guilty because he was Hispanic (and this juror considered Hispanic males to be sexually aggressive toward females). According to the affidavits, the juror also deemed the alibi witness not credible because, among other things, that witness was “an illegal.” The trial court denied the motion and a divided Supreme Court of Colorado ultimately affirmed, applying Colorado Rule of Evidence 606(b)--which prohibits juror testimony on any matter occurring during the jury deliberations--and finding that none of the exceptions to the rule applied. In the dissenters’ view, however, Rule 606(b) should have yielded to “the defendant’s constitutional right to an impartial jury.”
The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was 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.
By a vote of 5-3, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado and remanded the case. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, while held that when a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror's statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas joined.
To discuss the case, we have John C. Richter, who is Partner at King & Spalding.