Moot Court: Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

               The moot court kicked off the Supreme Court Preview on Friday evening. It featured a case discussing whether racial bias by jurors violates a defendant’s sixth amendment right to a fair trial. In the case, a juror made comments during jury deliberation that he thought the defendant was “guilty because he’s a Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.” In the moot court, Professor David Strauss of University of Chicago School of Law argued for the Petitioner, while Christopher Landau of Kirkland & Ellis argued the Respondent position.

               The questions from the eight judge panel highlighted several underlying issues within the case. First, they questioned the practical implications of finding that the defendant’s 6th amendment rights were violated. Judges were clearly concerned about whether they would then need to extend the same logic not just to racial or ethnic bias, but to religious bias or gender bias. Second, the Respondent strongly emphasized that there are other procedural remedies prior to the verdict being delivered which are designed to root out racial bias. The attorney for the defendant failed to take advantage of several of those procedural mechanisms to prevent a racially biased jury. For example, the defense counsel at trial did not ask any questions in voir dire to ascertain whether potential jurors were prejudiced against people of Mexican heritage. Asking questions during that process could have revealed the bias of the juror. Even after trial, attorneys can give evidence of a juror’s bias. All they are forbidden from doing is submitting juror based evidence to challenge a juror’s bias. In this case the attorney wanted to submit an affidavit from another juror about the statements made during deliberation. That is not considered an admissible form of evidence to challenge juror bias after the verdict has been delivered. However, Mr. Landau argued that the attorney could have used the statement about juror bias from one juror as a springboard to look for admissible forms of evidence that members of the jury were biased, such as social media posts. 

               Additionally, one of the facts that was often pointed to was that there was a single juror who was biased in the case. One of the other jurors is the person who spoke out against the racially biased juror.  Therefore, not all of the jurors shared the belief that the defendant was guilty because he was Mexican, and some of them explicitly rejected that argument. The Petitioner argued that the prejudices of one juror still can influence the jury as a whole. He argued even unprejudiced jurors may have felt that they could not speak freely in deliberations, because of how their comment would be perceived by the prejudiced juror. Therefore, even if they majority of the jury is not biased against the defendant, there could be a chilling effect on jury deliberations.

               The remedy which the Petitioner sought was not a reversal of the conviction. Instead, Professor Strauss argued that the appropriate remedy is a hearing conducted by the trial judge. That hearing would investigate whether the racial bias demonstrated by a juror impacted the outcome of the trial. The trial judge would then have options to rectify the impact of a biased jury, if the jury was in fact influenced.

               The verdict delivered by the panel was 4-3 in favor of the Petitioner, with one judge abstaining. The judges indicated that through their deliberation they realized, due to the fact that the trial attorney’s failed to utilize any of the procedural mechanisms available to them to combat racial bias, this may not be the “right” case for the Supreme Court to actually make a pro-Petitioner ruling. It would be more likely the court would actually agree with the Petitioner’s proposed remedy in instances where the trial attorney exhausted all other procedural mechanisms and still failed to root out racial bias from the jury.