Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

Facts of the Case

In 2007, in the bathroom of a Colorado horse-racing facility, a man sexually assaulted two teenage sisters. The girls told their father and identified the man as an employee of the racetrack. The police located and arrested petitioner, Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez who was separately identified by the victims as the man who had assaulted them. Thereafter, the state prosecutors in Colorado charged Peña-Rodriguez with harassment, unlawful sexual contact, and attempted sexual assault on a child. Before the jury was empaneled, members of the venire were repeatedly asked whether they believed that they could be fair and impartial in the case. Accordingly, the Court encouraged the jurors to speak in private with the court if they had any concerns about their impartiality. None of the empaneled jurors expressed any reservations based on racial or any other bias. And none asked to speak with the trial judge. After a 3-day trial, the jury found petitioner guilty of unlawful sexual contact and harassment, but it failed to reach a verdict on the attempted sexual assault charge. After the jury has convicted the petitioner with the crime of unlawful sexual contact and harassment, two jurors remained to speak with counsel in private. They stated that, during deliberations, another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias toward petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness. Petitioner’s counsel reported this to the court and, with the court’s supervision, obtained sworn affidavits from the two jurors. The affidavits by the two jurors described a number of biased statements made by another juror, identified as Juror H. C. After reviewing the affidavits, the trial court acknowledged H. C.’s apparent bias. But the court denied petitioner’s motion for a new trial, noting that the actual deliberations that occur among the jurors are protected from inquiry under

Question

May Rule 606(b) of Colorado’s Rules of Evidence bar evidence of racial bias offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury?

CONCLUSION

Rule 606(b) of Colorado’s Rules of Evidence may not bar evidence of racial bias which is offered to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion for the 5-3 majority. The Court held that, if a juror makes a clear statement that he or she convicted a criminal defendant relying on racial stereotypes or animus, the trial court is permitted to consider evidence of the juror’s statements. The Court reiterated the sanctity of the jury to our criminal justice system and its reluctance to interfere with it. Rule 606(b), the no-impeachment rule, stems from the desire to prevent jurors from testifying about their deliberation after the verdict was entered, and it is a common law principle that is more lenient in some states than others. However, the Court noted that there was a possibility of an exception in the “gravest and most important cases.” In certain rare cases, when racial animus is apparent in a juror, the no-impeachment rule shall be set aside in an effort to protect the Sixth Amendment. Not every “offhand” racial comment from a juror will warrant setting aside the no-impeachment rule. The exception demands that a juror exhibit overt racial animus that calls into question his or her ability to make a fair and impartial judgment about the defendant. Although the Court noted that there were processes currently in place to prevent racial bias in juries, such as the process of voir dire–the preliminary examination and elimination of jury members–these protections were often not sufficient, and therefore this exception was necessary. In this case, the Court held that the juror’s statements were “egregious and unmistakable in their reliance on racial bias.” The juror in question also encouraged other jurors to join in his racially-motivated conviction.Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent in which he argued that the majority opinion incorrectly interpreted the Sixth Amendment and its precedents. He explained that common law tradition does not permit impeachment of a verdict based on juror misconduct. If there is a reason to set aside the no-impeachment rule, it should be the legislature’s role to do so, not the role of the judiciary. In his separate dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. wrote that barring the admission of juror testimony is deeply rooted in the criminal justice system’s history. He argued  that, although racial bias is important to prevent, it should be treated no differently than other forms of impartiality by a juror for the purposes of the Sixth Amendment. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Justice Thomas joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 580 US _ (2017)
  • Granted: Apr 4, 2016
  • Argued: Oct 11, 2016
  • Decided Mar 6, 2017