The U. S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument Tuesday in a case involving a Colorado man convicted of assaulting two teenage sisters in 2007, who wants permission to use statements by the jurors about their deliberations as evidence to challenge his guilty verdict. At issue in the case of Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado are state and federal laws that hold jury deliberations as confidential and forbid the use of juror's statements about deliberations as evidence to overturn a verdict.
The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has joined the case to encourage the Court to reject Peña-Rodriguez's claim and uphold the historic sanctity of the jury process. Among the ten organizations which have filed arguments in support of Peña-Rodriguez are the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the United Mexican States.
The case involves an incident which occurred at a Colorado racetrack in 2007. In May of that year, Peña-Rodriguez was working as a horse keeper at the track. Three sisters, aged 16, 15 and 14, were also staying at the track with their parents.
One evening, on their way to the track bathroom, the three girls walked past Peña-Rodriguez and another man who were sitting and drinking beer near the bathroom entrance. As the girls entered the bathroom, Peña-Rodriguez followed them inside and asked if they wanted to drink or party.
The girls said no and the youngest sister left just before the man turned off the lights and began to grope the remaining two girls. The two sisters managed to push him away and escape, immediately telling their parents what happened. From the description the girls gave, the father recognized that it was Peña-Rodriguez and informed the track security guard. As they were talking, the father and the guard saw Peña-Rodriguez speeding away in his pickup. He was arrested later that evening and the two sisters individually identified him as the man who groped them in the bathroom.
At trial, Peña-Rodriguez's defense attorney argued that he had been misidentified and that some other man had followed the girls into the bathroom. A friend testified that Peña-Rodriguez had been visiting with him in a different part of the track at the time of the assault. After 12 hours of deliberations, the jury failed to agree on a felony count of attempted sexual assault but unanimously convicted him of misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual contact and harassment for which he was sentenced to two years of probation.
At no time during the jury selection did the defense attorney question prospective jurors about their prejudices regarding Hispanics.
After the trial, the defense attorney took affidavits from two jurors who said that another juror had made prejudicial remarks about Mexicans during deliberations. Based upon these affidavits, the defense moved for a new trial. The judge denied the motion, citing a state rule barring the use of juror affidavits as evidence. The only exceptions to the rule are a jury's consideration of evidence not introduced at trial, and the use of threats or bribery to force a verdict. The state court of appeals and the state Supreme Court also denied the motion, citing the same rule and noting that the defendant had waived the right to raise a racial bias challenge to the verdict when he failed to question jurors about possible bias.
When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Peña-Rodriguez's appeal, the Foundation joined the case. In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kym Stapleton argues that the confidentiality of jury deliberations has roots dating back to English common law, specifically to assure that jurors could speak freely during deliberations without fear of recourse. The sanctity of juror deliberations was emphasized by Supreme Court Justice and legal scholar Joseph Story in his 1833 book “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.” “They sit in secret, and examine the evidence laid before them by themselves,” he wrote. The Foundation notes that most states and the federal government have rules protecting the privacy of juries similar to Colorado's. A decision removing that protection in order to allow defendants to utilize juror statements about deliberations to challenge verdicts would undermine the reliability of verdicts and open a Pandora's Box of claims against valid convictions and sentences.
CJLF Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.