Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

Following is the case brief for Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855 (2017)

Case Summary of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado:

  • Petitioner Pena-Rodriguez was convicted of harassment and unlawful sexual contact by a Colorado jury.
  • After the jury was dismissed, two jurors informed defense counsel that another juror had a racial bias against petitioner and his alibi witness, who was also Hispanic.
  • The trial court denied petitioner’s request for a new trial because of Colorado’s no-impeachment rule, which prevents a juror from disclosing statements made during jury deliberations.
  • The Colorado appellate courts affirmed the trial judge’s decision.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded.  It held that when a juror makes a clear statement that he or she used racial animus in deciding to convict a defendant, then the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury supersedes the no-impeachment rule.

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

A jury in Colorado state court convicted petitioner Pena-Rodriguez of unlawful sexual contact and harassment.  At the end of the proceedings, two jurors told petitioner’s counsel that one juror, H.C., made anti-Hispanic comments during deliberations about petitioner and petitioner’s alibi witness.  H.C. also apparently attempted to persuade other jurors with his racially biased comments.  The two jurors completed affidavits regarding H.C.’s racial bias.

The trial court, acknowledging the affidavits, denied petitioner’s motion for a new trial based on Colorado Rule 606(b) (the so-called “no-impeachment rule”) which generally prohibits a juror from testifying as to statements made during deliberations in connection with a hearing on the validity of a verdict.

Procedural History:

  • The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of a new trial.
  • The Colorado Supreme Court also affirmed, relying on case law involving the federal no-impeachment rule and evidence of juror bias.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does the Rule 606(b) no-impeachment rule supersede a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Colorado Supreme Court is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

When a juror makes a clear statement that he or she relied on racial bias to convict someone, the Sixth Amendment supersedes the no-impeachment rule, so a trial court can consider evidence of the juror’s statements in determining whether the defendant received a fair jury trial.

Reasoning:

Over time, there have been several ways in which U.S. courts have dealt with evidence of juror bias.  At common law, jurors were forbidden to impeach the verdict.  The “Iowa rule” is more flexible and only prevents jurors from testifying about their own beliefs during deliberations.  Finally, the “federal approach,” allows for exceptions to the no-impeachment rule for events outside the deliberative process.  Colorado’s Rule 606(b) is similar to the Federal Rule 606(b), adopted in 1975.

At common law, there is an exception to the no-impeachment rule in the “gravest and most important cases.”  The Court has yet to find an exception to Rule 606(b).  But, that said, this case marks the conflict between the importance of the no-impeachment rule to protect freedom in jury deliberations, and the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury, free of racial animus.  When faced with the conflict, the no-impeachment rule must give way to the Sixth Amendment.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

The Court’s opinion is inconsistent with the original understanding of the Sixth Amendment.  The right to an impartial jury does not guarantee the right to impeach a jury verdict with evidence of juror misconduct.

Dissenting Opinion (Alito):

Jury deliberations should remain unregulated.  The Court should not intrude into that private space, no matter how well intentioned.

Significance:

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado is significant because it involves two very important, but competing values.  On the one hand, the sanctity of the jury deliberation room should be protected.  Yet, on the other hand the right to an “impartial jury” means that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury free of racial animus or bias that is used in deciding a case.  The Court therefore had to make a judgment call as to which important principle takes precedence.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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