Addressing Racial Bias in the Jury System: Another Failed Attempt?

Publication year2019

Addressing Racial Bias in the Jury System: Another Failed Attempt?

Alisa Micu
Georgia State University College of Law,

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Alisa Micu*


A long-standing rule of evidence, Rule 606(b), also referred to as the no-impeachment rule, establishes that testimony of jurors regarding events in deliberations cannot be used to question the validity of a verdict.1 Courts have held that the no-impeachment rule is the general tenet governing the use of juror testimony when a defendant seeks a new trial.2 The purpose of this rule is to balance the preservation of valid verdicts with the interests of ensuring a fair trial for the defendant, and it expressly prohibits an inquiry based on juror misconduct during deliberations.3 By not allowing defendants to challenge jurors individually, the rule prevents endless appeals and contests while simultaneously protecting the accused's constitutional right to a fair trial by a jury of his peers.4 The no-impeachment rule presumes honesty during jury deliberations and only under certain limited exceptions allows evidence from the jury room to challenge a

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verdict.5 Under these exceptions, the rule admits testimony about extraneous influence that may have prejudicially influenced the verdict.6 Through the limited scope of its exceptions, the rule protects the finality of verdicts and freedom of deliberations and prevents jurors from being exposed to harassment based on their conduct during deliberations.7

Once viewed as the backbone of the judicial system, the jury's competency has been called into question by concerns of due process.8 In the 2017 Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado decision, the Supreme Court of the United States weighed the importance of the centuries-old principles that the no-impeachment rule seeks to protect against the potential harm that jurors' racial biases may have on the defendant and the verdict.9 In doing so, the Court overturned a Colorado Supreme Court decision that had barred evidence of a juror's racial statements made during deliberations under Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b).10 Evaluating the protections afforded by the

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Sixth Amendment, the Pena-Rodriguez Court concluded that the Constitution requires an additional exception to the no-impeachment rule.11 Thus, the Court held that evidence of racial statements made during deliberations is allowed to impeach the credibility of a verdict.12 The Court overturned precedent that excluded this evidence as a necessary measure to the administration of justice and a guard against the injury caused by racial bias.13

This Note explores the majority opinion and the dissents in Pena-Rodriguez regarding whether the Supreme Court has adequately provided guidance for lower courts to follow the ruling, which now allows exceptions for evidence of racial bias to Rule 606(b). Part I discusses the history of the no-impeachment rule, its foundation in the Sixth Amendment, and its constitutional requirements.14 Further, Part I discusses the different approaches that courts have taken in adopting Rule 606(b) and what problems courts have identified in its application.15 Part II analyzes whether the Supreme Court, as a practical matter, has provided a workable procedural scheme for lower courts to follow in meeting their new legal obligation to consider a juror's racial bias after the verdict, or whether the Court has left open important considerations, creating precedent that will further erode the protections of the no-impeachment rule.16 Finally, Part III proposes actions that the Supreme Court could take to clarify questions raised by the Pena-Rodriguez ruling.17

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I. Background

Rooted in principles of ensuring verdict finality and the freedom of juror deliberations, the no-impeachment rule has maintained the integrity of the jury system and its deliberative components.18 It has not only ensured the finality of verdicts but has also safeguarded against harassment of jurors after a verdict has been rendered.19 The jury's independence from outside influence instills confidence that the court's decision is not biased toward any one particular party.20 A direct correlation exists between the public's confidence in a jury and the jury's ability to legitimize judicial outcomes.21 However, the value placed in a jury's ability to use "common sense" in its fact finding has been diminished by increased concerns of juror prejudice.22

A. The Origins of the No-Impeachment Rule

Rules prohibiting the use of juror testimony to impeach a verdict originated in England and predate the ratification of the United States Constitution.23 The English Mansfield Rule provided a rigid approach to dealing with juror testimony by "prohibit[ing] jurors, after the verdict was entered, from testifying either about their subjective mental processes or about objective events that occurred during deliberations."24 American courts adopted the Mansfield Rule

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but provided some exceptions.25 In Mattox v. United States, the Court recognized an exception to the Mansfield rule and drew a distinction between jury misconduct during deliberations and improper outside influences upon jurors.26 As a result, some jurisdictions adopted the federal approach to the no-impeachment rule, permitting exceptions only for testimony about events extraneous to the deliberative process.27 Others adopted the Iowa rule, a more lenient version of the Mansfield rule that allowed jurors to testify about objective facts and events occurring during deliberations.28

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In 1975, by adopting the Federal Rules of Evidence, Congress rejected the Iowa rule, endorsing a broad no-impeachment approach with only a few exceptions.29 The preliminary rule of evidence has undergone several changes over the decades, which narrowed the scope originally contemplated.30 Congress did not specifically address juror bias in the no-impeachment rule.31 Rather, the rule prohibits a juror from testifying about any events that occurred during jury deliberations with exceptions only for "extraneous prejudicial information" introduced to a jury, "outside influence . . . improperly brought," or "a mistake . . . made in entering the verdict . . . "32 As a result of the rule's lack of specificity in dealing with racial bias, jurisdictions have applied it inconsistently.33

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B. The no-impeachment rule and the Requirements of the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to an impartial jury in a criminal trial.34 The Fourteenth Amendment extends the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment to the states.35 At common law, the right to a fair trial does not provide for the ability to invalidate a jury verdict on the basis of juror testimony regarding misconduct during deliberations.36 Thus, the circuits are split regarding the extent to which the Sixth Amendment protects defendants' rights when they believe that a juror's bias or prejudice influenced the final verdict.37 The conflict between the Sixth Amendment and Rule 606(b) is reconciled by exceptions—in certain circumstances—to the prohibition of the use of information from jury deliberations to impeach verdicts.38 Regardless of how different jurisdictions have

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applied the rule, a defendant's Sixth Amendment concerns have to some extent shaped the decision as to whether a juror has improperly prejudiced a verdict.39 In Batson v. Kentucky the Court made a first attempt to eliminate racial bias from the jury system at the voir dire stage of the trial process, but the attempt proved to be ineffective.40 Thus, some courts have specifically recognized that in instances where voir dire does not permit an informed basis on which to exercise peremptory challenges, the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of fairness in the trial process may require an inquiry into whether jurors' racial biases influenced the decision to convict.41 Although every state follows some version of the no-impeachment rule, some have implemented exceptions for when a juror's racial bias influences deliberations.42

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C. How States Have Treated Issues of Juror Bias in Deliberations

Courts have struggled to find a balance between protecting a defendant's right to a fair trial and protecting the integrity and freedom of jury deliberations and the finality of verdicts.43 Some courts have made exceptions to the rule in cases where racial bias influenced deliberations, whereas others have recognized safeguards that ensure a fair trial without the need for this exception.44

1. Racial Bias is an Exception to the no-impeachment rule

The courts that have declined to lay down an inflexible rule recognize that to administer justice there may be instances where a juror's testimony of another juror's racially biased conduct must be considered.45 These courts have addressed the constitutional need for an exception to Rule 606(b) where instances of racial bias influence a jury verdict.46 For example, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Shillcutt v. Gagnon determined that fundamental principles of fairness and justice could require an exception for racial bias under the no-impeachment rule but ultimately held that it was unlikely that a "racial slur" that occurred toward the end of deliberations could have influenced the verdict so as to prejudice the defendant.47 In contrast, in United States v.

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Henley, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a constitutional violation could occur even in the absence of prejudice pervading the jury room, where only a single juror expressed bias or prejudice.48

2. Rule 606(b) Applies to All Statements Made in Deliberations

In Commonwealth v. Steele, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania addressed and applied the bar to a juror's testimony that racial bias influenced deliberations.49 However, the court strictly construed the exceptions to Rule 606(b) as applicable only to...

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