Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez, an immigrant, who claimed he did not have a fair trial, will be heard by the Supreme Court. The eight justices have taken the Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado case, and they will have to decide whether the sanctity of what is said in the jury room can be breached if there is evidence of bias on the part of the jurors.
In May of 2007, a man walked into a women’s bathroom at a horse-racing track in Colorado where he found two sisters. He purchased beers for the teenagers, and he inappropriately touched them.
The girls’ father called the police and within minutes Pena-Rodriguez, who worked at a nearby barn, was arrested. The teens sitting behind a police car identified Pena-Rodriguez as the man who groped them.
Pena-Rodriguez claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and he had a co-worker who confirmed his alibi. The case went to trial, and a jury found Pena-Rodriguez guilty. Mr. Pena-Rodriguez was sentenced to two years of probation in 2010 and has since completed his term.
However, surprising revelations have been made about what happened during jury deliberations. Two jurors confirmed that another member of the jury with the initials H.C., who is a former law enforcer, might have influenced the others by saying Pena-Rodriguez had to be guilty because he is “Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
The former law enforcement officer said he once patrolled, “nine times out of 10, Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.” The juror also said that the witness, who attested for Pena-Rodriguez’s whereabouts, could not be credible because he “was an illegal.” It was proven that the witness was a legal U.S. resident. All 12 jurors voted to convict him.
During the hour-long argument, Justice Samuel Alito asked lawyer Jeffrey Fisher, representing Pena Rodriguez:
“And if we allow the exception that you are advocating, what do you say to … the prisoner who is going to be spending the rest of his life in prison as a result of the jury verdict that was determined by flipping a coin?”
Justice Elena Kagan stated:
“There was screaming race bias in the jury room.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor added:
“I always thought the most pernicious and odious discrimination in our law is based on race.”
Justice Stephen Breyer said:
“We’re trying to create a fairer system in general and one that will be perceived as such.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts asked:
“What about religious bias?”
However, Pena-Rodriguez’s lawyer, Jeffrey Fisher, replied by saying that “race is different.” Frederick Yarger, Colorado’s solicitor general, argued that there are “enough safeguards are in place to root out bias, including voir dire — the extensive questioning of potential jurors before the trial.” Fisher added:
“The threat to verdict finality is substantial. An exception to jury secrecy for allegations of racial prejudice would likely be expanded to other biases and juror misconduct.”
The Obama administration is backing Colorado in this case. A decision in Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado, 15-606 is expected in June 2017.