On Monday, March 6, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if juror discussions involve racial or ethnic bias, that an exception must be made to the usual rule that jury deliberations are secret.
In the case the Supreme Court heard, a juror, a former law enforcement officer, stated of the defendant, “I think he did it because he's Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.” Another juror who heard the statement reported that, “He said that where he used to patrol, nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.”
In the Supreme Court decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated that this obvious racial bias warranted an investigation into deliberations which are typically secret. “Racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional and institutional concerns,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the decision.
Justice Kennedy referred to the procedure to identify jurors who may be biased, called “voir dire” or questioning during jury selection are not as effective when race is at issue.
This decision is important in that while attorneys in a trial may ask during jury selection about biases, if a dishonest juror will convict an individual entirely due to his race, true justice cannot be served. The role of jurors is a sacred one. When a juror is sworn in, a promise is made to not reach a decision until all the evidence is heard. All parties in a case deserve honesty from jurors. In many trials I have participated in, many potential jurors honestly disclose their biases. For that I am always appreciative, whether that bias is in favor of my client or not.
In one jury trial I represented an individual in a Driving Under the Influence case. At the conclusion of the trial my client was convicted. The very next morning I surprisingly received a call from one of the jurors informing me of misconduct by another juror. The reporting juror stated that she felt she could not live with herself and was upset with how the jurors decided. I immediately contacted the trial judge, a hearing was conducted and the conviction was set aside.
While the court's decision specifically addresses racial bias needing to be disclosed, our legal system cannot be effective if jurors enter the system with a predisposition against certain individuals, races or cultures.