March 6 (UPI) -- The United States Supreme Court decided Monday that the presence of racial biases during jury deliberations have the potential to violate defendants' constitutional rights -- and in those circumstances, jurors' secret deliberations must be reviewed by the court.
Addressing an issue it first pondered three years ago, the Supreme Court said courts must order verdict reviews in cases where it is established that deliberations may have been tainted by racial prejudice. Such biases, it said, can violate a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.
The 5-3 vote was made in the case of Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez, a Colorado man convicted of three misdemeanors for allegedly groping two teen girls in 2007. Jurors acquitted him of felony sex assault but convicted him on lesser counts. After the trial, it was claimed that one of the jurors had expressed negative racial views about Hispanic men during deliberations.
"Racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional and institutional concerns and, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in Mondays ruling. "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed -- including, in some instances, after a verdict has been entered -- is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts."
Peña Rodriguez, who was sentenced to probation for the misdemeanor convictions, has long insisted that he was not involved in the girls' groping and believed it was a case of mistaken identity.
After the 2010 trial and its verdicts, two jurors revealed that one panel member had said he "believed the defendant was guilty because ... Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women."
The juror's view of Hispanic men stemmed from his experience as a law enforcement officer, the other jurors said.
In 2014, the Supreme Court did not rule on Peña Rodriguez's appeal and instead remanded it to a lower court. The case was eventually routed back to the high court.
"For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury's deliberations and resulting verdict," Kennedy wrote, emphasizing that not every offhand remark about race would warrant a review.
The justices who voted against the majority -- Samuel A. Alito, John G. Roberts and Clarence Thomas -- said Monday's ruling was too broad and resulted from a flawed constitutional analysis. They pointed out that it doesn't say anywhere in the Sixth Amendment that a defendant's right to a fair trial is rooted in a bias-free jury.
"The real thrust of the majority opinion is that the Constitution is less tolerant of racial bias than other forms of juror misconduct, but it is hard to square this argument with the nature of the Sixth Amendment right," Alito wrote. "Nothing in the text or history of the [Sixth Amendment] or in the inherent nature of the jury trial right suggests that the extent of the protection provided by the amendment depends on the nature of a jury's partiality or bias.
"It is undoubtedly true that 'racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns.' But it is hard to see what that has to do with the scope of an individual criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to be judged impartially."
Monday's decision conflicts at least somewhat with previous positions the court has taken in the matter. In 1987, the court ruled that even the most egregious misconduct by jurors shouldn't make their deliberations subject to review. In 2014, justices unanimously ruled that deliberations cannot be detailed in later testimony, even if it is intended to expose dishonesty by panel members during initial jury selection.
The court observed in each case that revealing secret talks from the jury room could have the potential to discourage court members from speaking candidly during deliberations in the future, and could also open up jurors to harassment by attorneys during the court-ordered reviews that followed.
"Jurors would be harassed and beset by the defeated party in an effort to secure from them evidence of facts which might establish misconduct sufficient to set aside a verdict," the high court wrote in a 1915 ruling. "If evidence thus secured could be thus used, the result would be to make what was intended to be a private deliberation, the constant subject of public investigation."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the 2014 opinion, however, that there are certain scenarios that could justify the review of secret jury deliberations.
"There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged," she wrote. "If and when such a case arises, the court can consider whether the usual safeguards are or are not sufficient to protect the integrity of the process."