Supreme Court Decides Whether a New Trial Can be Given When Juror Displays Racial Bias

Our jury system revolves around a jury’s ability to debate freely, anonymously, and to make decisions without worrying about being second guessed. That is why it is almost impossible to attack a verdict based on how a juror deliberated, or how they made a decision.

But a recent U.S. Supreme Court case has dealt with the problem of what happens when a juror makes a decision based on prejudicial attitudes towards a race or nationality.

Juror Makes Prejudicial Comments

The case arose from the conviction of a man charged with sexually assaulting young girls. After the jury deliberated and convicted the defendant, a jury member took the attorney for the defendant aside and told him that one of the jurors had made prejudicial remarks about Mexicans while in the jury room. The comments were sufficient to indicate that the juror may have made his decision based on prejudice and stereotypes towards Mexicans, as opposed to the facts of the case.

The trial court agreed that the juror may well have been biased, but because the evidence rules protect jurors from being questioned as to their deliberations, the trial judge denied the defendant’s requests for a new trial.

Supreme Court Discusses Impeaching Jurors

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which noted that the evidence rule has traditionally allowed inquiry into jury deliberations, when jurors consulted outside sources in making their decision (for example, reading newspapers, or discussing the facts of a trial with family). The evidence rules traditionally make information about a juror’s thought processes or decision making completely private.

When it comes to racial bias, courts had previously been split on whether evidence that a juror was biased can be inquired into by defense counsel. In fact, some courts had even refused to allow an attorney to impeach a juror’s decision making, even when there was evidence that the juror may have been intoxicated during deliberations.

Still, the court noted that constitutional due process requires that racial animus be taken out of the court system, and that citizens get equal protection regardless of race or nationality. Unlike other cases of juror misconduct, race discrimination involves a problem the country has historically sought to remove from government systems.

Additionally, unlike other forms of juror bias which may be revealed during voir dire, many jurors will not actively disclose any racial animus that they may have. Thus, defendants often may not have the ability to avoid racial discrimination, if jurors could not be impeached after a trial where there is evidence of discrimination.

Supreme Court Decides New Trial Warranted

Thus, the Court held that if there is evidence that racial bias affected a juror’s decision making or otherwise prevented a defendant from getting a fair trial, the juror can be questioned, and a new trial must be given. A juror cannot hide behind the traditional protections from being questioned about deliberations.

The statements by the juror must be overtly biased, and that they were a motivating factor in the juror’s decision to convict. Here, the statement by the juror fit that description.

Picking and dealing with a jury can win or lose a criminal trial. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case.