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Criminal jury trial defense – SCOTUS makes headway against juror racism

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Today, the United States Supreme Court (ruling 5-3) made headway against juror racism. Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado___ U.S. ___ (March 6, 2017). Generally, under Peña-Rodriguez, if a juror’s words show reliance on racism to convict, the usual prohibition is lifted against being able to impeach what occurred in the jury room. More specifically:

“[T]je Court now holds that where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates 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.

“Not every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility will justify setting aside the no-impeachment bar to allow further judicial inquiry. For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict. To qualify, the statement must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict. Whether that threshold showing has been satisfied is a matter committed to the substantial discretion of the trial court in light of all the circumstances, including the content and timing of the alleged statements and the reliability of the proffered evidence.”

Peña-Rodriguez is a lengthy and essential read for a criminal defense lawyer to be ready to identify and challenge any racist actions in the jury room.