"The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases," writes Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority in the recent case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado.
"The nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination," Kennedy continued. "Blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule."
Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado represents a major departure from a long-term rule called the "jury impeachment" rule. This rule essentially tries to keep the outcome of jury deliberations final. One juror can't march out and complain to the judge that the other jurors were idiots or that they drew straws to determine the verdict. What goes on in the jury room is private and can't be dug into later.
What if one of the jurors was blatantly racist?
It has been long-settled jurisprudence that what happens in the jury room can't be brought into an appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled in the past that evidence of pure racial animus by a juror was not enough to overturn a verdict.
It is now. In the case before the court, one juror, identified as "H.C." blatantly told the other jurors that, in his experience as a former law enforcement officer, nine out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of aggressive sexual conduct toward women and have a bravado that makes them believe they can get away with it. Furthermore, he went on to say, the defendant's alibi witness shouldn't be believed because he was allegedly "an illegal."
The jurors had already decided to convict Mr. Peña-Rodriguez on lesser charges, but H.C.'s racist arguments apparently persuaded them to convict him of the most serious charge against him, attempted sexual assault.
To use the jury impeachment rule to keep such evidence away from the eyes of the appellate courts would be wrong, the majority reasoned. It would corrode the system from within and along with it, the nation's perception of the fairness of the justice system.
"What Justice Kennedy recognizes in his opinion," says a Duke law professor who helped write a brief on Peña-Rodriguez's behalf, "is that the ordinary safeguards don't work to ferret out the kind of racism present here. He talks about the way racial bias performs an infective function. It corrupts."