Supreme Court Rules Racism in Jury Deliberations Can Overturn Verdicts

The Supreme Court building in Washington, March 7, 2016. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

Racism in jury deliberations is so insidious that verdicts can be thrown out even following convictions, a divided Supreme Court ruled Monday.

A majority of justices said 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 revealed by fellow jurors only after the verdict was in.

“Racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns,” Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the court’s four liberal justices, wrote. “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.”

It was a close call — the court ruled 5-3 in the defendant’s favor — because state and federal rules seek to protect jury verdicts from impeachment 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.”

Several justices worried during oral argument in October that allowing new trials because of racial discrimination could lead to other challenges over religion, gender, sexual orientation — even a defendant’s political party or driving skills.

The case involved a racetrack employee’s conviction for sexual battery involving teen-age girls and a single juror’s statements — revealed by two other jurors only after the verdict was announced — that he must be guilty “because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Richard Wolf