Court Upholds Conviction Despite Evidence of Racial Bias from Juror


The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Miguel Angel Peña Rodriguez despite evidence that a juror said, “I think he did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”

The juror, called H.C. in court papers, was a former law enforcement officer who also said during deliberations that “where he used to patrol, nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.” Two other jurors submitted sworn statements after the trial that described H.C.’s comments, which also included that “he did not think the alibi witness was credible because, among other things, he was ‘an illegal.'” 

Mr. Rodriguez was accused of making sexual advances toward two teenage girls in the bathroom of a horse-racing track. The jury deadlocked on the most serious charge against Mr. Rodriguez but convicted him of three misdemeanors. He was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Mr. Rodriguez appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that his constitutional right to an impartial jury was violated by the juror’s expression of racial bias.  The court denied relief by a 4-to-3 vote.  

In dissent, Justice Monica M. Márquez wrote that “racial bias is detestable in any context, but in our criminal justice system it is especially pernicious.”  The policies of finality and juror privacy, she said, cannot “trump a defendant’s opportunity to vindicate his fundamental constitutional right to an impartial jury untainted by the influence of racial bias.”

The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision evinces a willingness to tolerate racial bias in criminal cases that remains far too common among state and federal courts in the United States — from the numerous courts that have failed to recognize racial discrimination in prosecutors’ decisions to bar people of color from jury service to the United States Supreme Court’s holding in McCleskey v. Kemp that racial disparities in the criminal justice system are “inevitable.”

The Supreme Court will have a new opportunity to reconsider that approach, as Mr. Rodriguez has appealed to the nation’s highest court. The case is Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15-606.

“Racial bias is detestable in any context, but in our criminal justice system it is especially pernicious,” the dissent wrote.