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Racial bias in the jury room can violate a defendant's right to a fair trial, Supreme Court says

WASHINGTON — Racial comments made during jury deliberations may violate a defendant's right to a fair trail and require review of a resulting guilty verdict, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The court's decision came in the case of Coloradan Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez, who found out after his conviction that a juror said he felt that Peña Rodriguez was guilty of sexual assault because he was Mexican, and "Mexican men take whatever they want."

Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's liberals in a 5 to 3 decision that said racially biased comments in the jury room may violate the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial, and require examining the usual secrecy that surrounds jury deliberations.

Protecting against bias in the jury room is necessary "to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy," Kennedy wrote. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Peña Rodriguez was challenging federal rules and those employed in Colorado and elsewhere that forbid challenging statements made during jury deliberations.

He was convicted of groping two teenage girls in a bathroom at a Colorado track where he worked in 2007. He denied it, and said it was a case of mistaken identity. The jury acquitted him of a felony charge and convicted him of misdemeanors.

After the verdict, two jurors told defense attorneys that another juror, identified in court papers as H.C., had made the comments about Mexicans and said that as a former law enforcement officer, he had seen numerous similar cases.

Peña Rodriguez's lawyers wanted the judge to investigate the comments to decide whether they deprived their client of a fair trial. But the judge said he was barred from conducting such a review, and his decision was upheld by a 4 to 3 vote of the Colorado Supreme Court.

Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger told the justices during oral arguments that the alleged comments from the juror were "no doubt reprehensible." But he added that the "citizen jury system requires safeguards to ensure full and fair debate in the jury room and prevent harassment and tampering after verdicts are handed down."

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

They said even comments such as those in the Peña Rodriguez case did not justify such a change.

Alito wrote that "with the admirable intention of providing justice for one criminal defendant," the court "rules that respecting the privacy of the jury room, as our legal system has done for centuries, violates the Constitution."

The case is Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado.

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