Racism in jury deliberations is so insidious that verdicts can be thrown out even after convictions, a divided Supreme Court ruled today, USA Today reports. A majority of justices said Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, a Colorado man accused of sexual battery, may deserve a new trial because a juror made discriminatory comments about Mexicans such as him during private deliberations. The comments were reported by fellow jurors only after the verdict was in. “Racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by four liberal justices. “An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.”
The court ruled 5-3 for Peña-Rodriguez even though state and federal rules seek to protect jury verdicts from challenge after the fact, based on the sanctity of the jury room. “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,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas. “This is a startling development, and although the court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled grounds for preventing the expansion of today’s holding.” It was the second high court ruling in 12 days implicating racial overtones in court proceedings. Last month, the justices ruled 6-2 that a Texas death row inmate deserved a new sentencing hearing because of racially discriminatory testimony presented by his own defense team.