Defense attorneys tossed the Supreme Court a can of worms in 2015, and on April 4, the high court decided to open it by taking a controversial case that could impact the future of criminal trials in the U.S.
At issue is a case against Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez and whether he received a fair trial despite a juror's comments about his nationality.
A jury convicted Pena Rodriguez of harassment and unlawful sexual contact, all misdemeanors, for an incident involving two teenage sisters at a horse race track near Denver, according to ABC News. After the trial, two jurors told Pena Rodriguez's defense lawyers that another juror, a retired police officer identified by the initials H.C., made a series of claims and judgments about the defendant's nationality during deliberations.
"I think he did it because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want," H.C. said at one point, according to the two jurors.
H.C. allegedly also cast doubt on one of Pena Rodriguez' character witnesses because the witness was "an illegal," and said he believed Mexican culture fosters an atmosphere in which men can "do whatever they wanted with women.”
The jurors who came forward said they didn't believe H.C.'s comments impacted the decision to convict, but Pena Rodriguez and his attorneys disagree. With the backing of groups like the NAACP and the National Congress of American Indians, Pena Rodriguez's lawyers petitioned the court to take the case, arguing that it's emblematic of a common bias problem in American courts.
It's not clear why H.C. was on the jury in the first place if he had preconceived notions about the defendant's nationality. The court warned the defense and prosecutors that some potential jurors may have harbored negative views of people who live in the U.S. illegally, according to the SCOTUSblog, but Pena Rodriguez' defense lawyers didn't question H.C. or any of the others about their potential biases.
At first glance, it seems pretty cut and dry. How can a defendant get a fair trial when a juror's already made up his or her mind about the defendant's race or nationality?
But three Colorado courts already ruled they could not overturn the conviction without violating the sanctity of private jury deliberations. Courts don't allow jurors to testify about what other jurors said during deliberations, because to do otherwise would open the justice system to all sorts of retroactive attempts to void convictions. The rules are intended to protect jurors from outside influences, and to prevent widespread manipulation of verdicts.
In a split decision affirming that stance in 1987, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor acknowledged that the system isn't perfect, but it's the best anyone's come up with.
"There is little doubt that post-verdict investigation into juror misconduct would in some instances lead to the invalidation of verdicts reached after irresponsible or improper juror behavior," O'Connor wrote. "It is not at all clear, however, that the jury system could survive such efforts to perfect it."
But as The Associated Press notes, Justice Sonia Sotomayor left open the possibility that the court would revisit the issue after ruling in a 2014 case about potential juror bias.
"There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged," Sotomayor wrote.
There are no easy answers here. It's clear that despite protocols and rules designed to produce fair juries, people with preconceived notions slip through. And it's not just in regard to nationality or race -- the 2014 case Sotomayor mentioned was about a motorcyclist who lost a leg, and a juror who said her daughter had been at fault in a similar case. That juror said a lawsuit against her daughter in similar circumstances would have "ruined her life," according to the AP, leaving little doubt as to her feelings on the case.
But as Barbara A. Babcock, a former defense attorney, noted in a New York Times editorial, "Even in our open society, confidentiality is sometimes necessary for a full airing of the issues. We would not think of filming the justices of the Supreme Court in conference, for instance, or a legislative strategy session hammering out a compromise. In such settings, the participants need the freedom to try out positions and to reveal their uncertainties -- both of which are much less likely to happen in front of a camera."
Anyone who doubts that should think about how they handle arguments with their spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, children or siblings. A disagreement in public looks entirely different from a disagreement in private, and it's in private where people don't feel they need to put on airs for others. In private, they can say how they really feel.
Like O'Connor wisely noted, the jury system isn't perfect, but it's the best we've got. Until someone comes up with a solution that won't cripple the criminal justice system, the courts should be wary of meddling with juror privacy.