The Yale Law Journal

Supreme Court Decision (Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado) Cites Volume 113 Essay on Racial Animus in Jury Deliberations

Cecilia (Yixi) Cheng
09 Apr 2017

In a recent decision, Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 127 S. Ct. 855 (2017), the Supreme Court confronted whether the black box of jury deliberations can shield racially-motivated jury decisions from being challenged on Sixth Amendment grounds. The case stemmed from a Colorado jury’s decision to convict the petitioner on harassment and unlawful sexual contact charges. After the jury was discharged, two jurors gave sworn testimony that one of the jury members expressed anti-Hispanic bias towards the petitioner during jury deliberations. 

In general, jury deliberations are given substantial protection in order to ensure finality and assure jurors that their verdicts will not be questioned based on what they express during deliberations. Id. at 861. As a result, jurors are generally forbidden from testifying about any statements made during deliberations. This principle is known as the no-impeachment rule, and is codified in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b). Id. at 861, 864-65. At the time of the Court’s decision, every state had been following some version of this rule, although select jurisdictions recognized exceptions for juror testimony about racial bias in deliberation. Id. at 865. 

In this 5-3 decision penned by Justice Kennedy, the Court clarified that, if a juror makes a clear statement indicating that s/he relied on racial animus to convict a defendant, the no-impeachment rule must give way and allow the trial court to assess any resulting violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right. Id. at 869.

To reach this holding, the majority opinion relied in part on Professor James Forman’s Essay, Juries and Race in the Nineteenth Century, 113 Yale L.J. 895, 909-10 (2004), to outline historical practices of racial prejudice within the jury system. Specifically, the Court cited the Essay for its discussion of Reconstruction and the jury: in the south, all-white juries instituted harsher punishments for black defendants while refusing to punish violence by white defendants against blacks. Forman’s historical discussion of race-motivated jury outcomes supports the Court’s recognition that “[t]he duty to confront racial animus in the justice system is not the legislature’s alone.” Pena-Rodriguez, 127 S. Ct. at 867.

The Court’s decision in Pena-Rodriguez therefore opens the door for Sixth Amendment challenges when racial animus surfaces in jury deliberations. As Justice Kennedy writes, unlike prior cases where a single jury may have “gone off course,” id. at 15, racial bias is “a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice,” id. at 15-16.