High Court Case Tests Race Bias, Jury Confidentiality

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Two principles of the U.S. legal system face off today at the U.S. Supreme Court: the expectation that jury deliberations will be confidential versus the belief that explicit racial bias taints legal proceedings to an unconstitutional degree, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The case could establish an important precedent regarding when jury verdicts can and can’t be investigated. It gives the court an opportunity to make a statement on racial bias in the courthouse. In 2007, when a Hispanic racetrack worker was on trial for sexual harassment, one juror told other jurors that he thought the defendant was guilty “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.” As a former law enforcement officer, the juror said, “9 times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”

The worker, Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, was convicted, and two jurors told defense attorneys about the comments. Arguing that his right to a fair and impartial jury had been violated, Peña-Rodriguez sought a new trial. Courts ruled against him, saying Colorado’s “no-impeachment rule” – preventing jurors from testifying after a verdict about what happened during deliberations – does not include an exception for incidents of racial bias. The high court must consider whether an offense can be so great that it outweighs vital protections to the jury process. “The court has [said], ‘We’re going to take all steps we can to eliminate, to the extent we can, racial bias and discrimination in the criminal justice system,’ ” says Cornell law Prof. John Blume. “Cases like this test whether the court means what it says.”



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