WASHINGTON — A juror’s use of racial or ethnic slurs during deliberations over a defendant’s guilt can be a reason for breaching the centuries-old legal principle of secrecy in the jury room, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The justices ruled 5-3 in a case from Colorado that lower courts can take the unusual step of examining jury deliberations when there are indications that racial bias deprived a defendant of his right to a fair trial.
The decision followed another ruling last month in which the court took a hard line against racial bias in the criminal justice system. In that case, the justices ruled in favor of an African-American prison inmate in Texas whose death sentence may have been tainted by troubling references to race in court testimony.
In Monday’s case, defendant Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez appealed to the Supreme Court after two jurors reported that a third juror tied Pena Rodriguez’s guilt to his Hispanic heritage.
The juror’s statements reportedly saying Pena Rodriguez was guilty because he is “Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want” only came to light after he was convicted of inappropriately touching teenage girls.
Colorado courts ruled against Pena Rodriguez because of a legal rule that protects jury deliberations.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority “that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule.” The court’s four liberal justices joined with Kennedy to form a majority.
The federal government and all 50 states have a rule that protects jury deliberations to discourage outside pressure and promote a jury’s independence, though several allow exceptions in circumstances similar to the case decided Monday, Kennedy said.
But the court stopped short of ordering a new trial or even laying out procedures for lower courts to follow. Instead, Kennedy said, trial courts could “consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantees.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“Today, with the admirable intention of providing justice for one criminal defendant, the court not only pries open the door; it rules that respecting the privacy of the jury room, as our legal system has done for centuries, violates the Constitution,” Alito wrote.
The Supreme Court had resisted the call in earlier cases to examine what was said in the jury room. But several justices indicated during argument in the case in October that the allegations raised by Pena Rodriguez made for an extraordinary case.
No other juror was alleged to have said anything improper and all 12 jurors, including the two who reported the inappropriate comments, voted to convict him.
Lawyers for Colorado and the Obama administration, which urged the court to leave jury secrecy undisturbed, acknowledged that statements attributed to the juror identified only as H.C. were indefensible. But they said there are better ways to address racial bias on juries, including closer screening of potential jurors.
The case is Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado, 15-606.