How can a jury be fair if jurors are prejudiced?  That question is at the heart of a recent case which is heading for the United States Supreme Court.  On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez, a Hispanic man convicted in 2007 for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing teenage sisters at a Denver-area horse track.

After the end of the jury trial, attorneys interviewed the jurors and discovered to their horror that during deliberations at least one juror voiced blatantly racist statements about the defendant.

A Racist Jury, a Racist Decision

The case was extremely close and jurors were having a difficult time deciding who to believe.  Initially, the jury was deadlocked on all criminal charges. Finally, after being told by the judge to keep deliberating, the jury came back with guilty charges and Mr. Pena was sentenced to probation.

Fortunately, after the verdict, two jurors came forwarded and told Mr. Pena’s criminal defense attorneys that one juror expressed blatantly racist opinions as part of the deliberations. This racist juror, who is referred to as “H.C.” in court filings, argued: “I think he did it because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.” Not only did the juror express these opinions, this juror seemed to base his decision of guilt on this disgusting opinion.

Clearly, race was a determining factor in the jury verdict in Mr. Pena’s case. One of the main problems, however, is that jury deliberations cannot be used as evidence to challenge a jury’s verdict. Typically, this means that whatever might be said during deliberations cannot be brought up a later time in order to get a new trial.

What are we to do, however, when defendants are subject to offensively racist decision-making, especially since these racists are impacting a defendant’s constitutional rights and liberty? Must we simply stand aside while racist decision-making continues to bleed into the judicial system?
As noted by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in support of Mr. Pena’s appeal:

“Recent events only confirm the stark and unsettling reality that racial bias and stereotyping remain serious and stubbornly persistent problems that undermine confidence in the criminal justice system.”

 

Racist Jurors in Death Penalty Cases

Of course, Mr. Pena’s case is not an isolated event. Every day across the country defendants charged in criminal cases face racist jurors. But if so, how can we be sure that the decisions being reached are fair? How can we trust a system where a juror can be convicted not on the evidence in the case but the color of his skin or the defendant’s ethnicity?

Not surprisingly, racism infects the most serious of cases. The Supreme Court is currently deciding a case distressingly similar to Mr. Pena’s in which racism was part of the deliberations. This time, the penalties involved death.

In 2005, Kenneth Fults was sentenced to death in the kidnapping and murder of his neighbor Cathy Bounds in Georgia. Cults is African-American and the victim was a white woman.   Not content to keep his racist views to himself, one of the jurors (Thomas Huffington) came out in support of his vote for the death penalty stating: “that’s what the n***** deserved.” Clearly, the decision by this juror to impose a death sentence was a result of his racist views.

The problems in the Fults case are perhaps even deeper in that Mr. Fults’ own attorney was overheard talking about clients as: “That little n**** deserves the chair.”

 

Perhaps a Way towards Justice

How can these decisions be fair if they are based on factors outside of the criminal case? The entire purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether the defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  Jurors are specifically instructed that racial bias is not part of the decision-making.  Racism must not have a part in deliberations.  And yet, we continue to see racist verdicts.

What we have here is a conflict between priorities.  Our system values the idea (perhaps the myth) of fair trials where bias and prejudice are not factors.  However, does it value these ideals enough that it will overturn convictions?

Hopefully, the Supreme Court will decide that in cases where evidence exists of racist deliberations, the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial trial have been compromised. Until then, the “justice system” will continue to foolishly turn its back on the people the system is intended to protect–defendants in criminal cases who are presumed innocent of the charges.

 

Written by Denver Criminal Lawyer Andres R. Guevara