Jury bias sees the light of day

Jury bias sees the light of day

The verdict has come down.  Guilty!  The accused is in disbelief.  The question arises: why did the jury decide this way?  How can this be?

As is typical, defense counsel speaks to the jury afterward.  Some jurors stay behind to discuss the case while others go on their way.  But of those who stick around some reveal heart-sickening details: another juror expressly voted “guilty” because of racial prejudice and bias.

What!?  An injustice has occurred is the natural thought.  “This must be brought to the court’s attention, and a new trial must be granted,” counsel thinks.  However, before this week, in the majority of states (including Pennsylvania), and in the federal government, a rule of evidence prohibited a court from receiving a juror’s affidavit or testimony regarding expressed juror bias during deliberations.  That rule of evidence is known as the “no-impeachment rule.”  In Pennsylvania, the no-impeachment rule is set forth in Rule 606(b) of the Rules of Evidence.  That rule reads as follows:

(b) During an Inquiry into the Validity of a Verdict

  1. Prohibited Testimony or Other Evidence. During an inquiry into the validity of a verdict, a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury’s deliberations; the effect of anything on that juror’s or another juror’s vote; or any juror’s mental processes concerning the verdict. The court may not receive a juror’s affidavit or evidence of a juror’s statement on these matters.
  2. Exceptions. A juror may testify about whether:

(A)prejudicial information not of record and beyond common knowledge and experience was improperly brought to the jury’s attention; or

(B) an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror.

 As of March 6, 2017, in the case of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the United States Supreme Court carved out a constitutional exception to the no-impeachment rule.  There, the Court held that “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” The reason for this holding was clear.  The Court wrote: “The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination.  The progress that has already been made underlies the Court’s insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted . . . despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule.”

The Court’s holding had the effect of overturning a past case out of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that addressed this very issue—Commonwealth v. Steele, 961 A.2d 786 (Pa. 2008).