Matthew T. Mangino
Pennsylvania Law Weekly
March 23, 2107
An age-old Pennsylvania legal tradition—the inability to upset a jury verdict regardless of the content or subject matter of a jury's internal deliberations—has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision came in the case of a Colorado man Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, who found out after his 2007 conviction that a juror said he thought that Peña-Rodriguez was guilty of sexual assault because he was Mexican and that "Mexican men take whatever they want."
The decision in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, Docket No. 15-606, decided March 6, involved the review—or lack thereof—of a Colorado jury verdict. The trial court acknowledged the juror's apparent bias, but refused to take any action, stating that the Colorado Rules of Evidence prohibit a juror from testifying regarding the validity of a verdict if it relates to statements made during deliberations. This is commonly referred to as the "no-impeachment" rule.
Peña-Rodriguez's case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court found when a juror makes a clear statement indicating that he relied on racial stereotypes to convict a defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires an exception to the no-impeachment rule.
Every state has some version of the no-impeachment rule. Pennsylvania was the only state, other than Colorado, that had addressed the no-impeachment rule and declined to recognize an exception for racial bias.
In Commonwealth v. Steele, 599 Pa. 341, 961 A.2d 786 (2012), Roland William Steele was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to three separate death sentences.
Steele argued that his due process rights and right to a fair and impartial jury were violated by the racial prejudice of one of the jurors, his opinions about Steele's guilt, and deliberative discussions that were held prior to formal deliberation.
One juror told Steele's legal team that another juror's racial bias seeped into the jury room from the inception of the trial. The juror stated in his declaration that "early in the trial one of the other jurors commented on the race of the defendant. He also noted the race of three victims and stated that, on that basis alone, the defendant was probably guilty," adding that Steele should "fry, get the chair or be hung."
The general rule regarding post-verdict jury testimony is codified in Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 606(b), the no-impeachment rule which states: "Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict ... a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions in reaching a decision upon the verdict or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith, and a juror's affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror about any of these subjects may not be received. However, a juror may testify concerning whether prejudicial facts not of record, and beyond common knowledge and experience, were improperly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror."
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held, "Despite Steele's contentions, the exception to the general no-impeachment rule is not implicated here. The exception only applies to outside influences, not statements made by the jurors themselves. ... The influence here was internal, not from outside sources. Once the verdict was entered, the jurors ... became incompetent to testify regarding any internal discussions or deliberations."
Steele's three death sentences were affirmed.
There may now be a glimmer of hope for Steele. Pennsylvania's unbending application of the no-impeachment rule has been overturned. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in Peña-Rodriguez, "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered—is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts."
Kennedy conceded that the Supreme Court has ruled previously—when there were allegations of jurors abusing drugs or alcohol or having a pro-defendant bias—that the confidentiality of the jury process was too important to allow a judge's investigation.
In Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court found that a defendant's right to a competent jury is not violated by the application of the no-impeachment rule to allegations of jurors sleeping and using drugs and alcohol during trial and deliberations.
However, the court has drawn the line at allegations of racial, religious, or other bias by jurors infringing on a defendant's constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury. "The same cannot be said about racial bias, a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice," Kennedy wrote.
"The nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination," Kennedy continued. "The progress that has already been made underlies the court's insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system."
Kennedy said there must be a "clear statement" that indicates a juror "relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant" before the judge could consider a defendant's claim. According to the Washington Post, Kennedy said it has not been shown to occur very often in states that already allow such inquiry.
The court did not address what procedures a court must follow when deciding a motion for a new trial based on juror testimony of racial bias or the appropriate standard for determining when such evidence is sufficient to require that the verdict be set aside.
Those matters have been left to individual states to work out. That process—leaving it up to the states—has not met with much success in modern Supreme Court jurisprudence. Namely, Atkins v.Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), where it is still unclear how states are to determine intellectual disability; and Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ (2012), where the high court only recently clarified whether the decision was retroactive.
Whether Steele's glimmer of hope amounts to anything may now be up to the Pennsylvania legislature. •
Special to the Law Weekly Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George. His book, "The Executioner's Toll, 2010," was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.