Racial Bias at Center of Two SCOTUS Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of two defendants recently in two very different cases, but with the same issue: racial bias.

The two cases couldn’t be more different, one a death penalty case, the other an unlawful sexual contact and harassment case, but racial prejudice was a factor in both, and in the past few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the defendants in both cases.

The death penalty case concerned Duane Buck, an African-American death row inmate in Texas, who was convicted of killing two people in Harris County in a capital murder trial in 1996. During the penalty phase of his trial, a psychologist who was called by the defense wrote in an assessment that there was an increased probability that Buck would exhibit violent behavior in the future because he was black. In Texas, a jury must unanimously conclude that the defendant is likely to commit future criminal acts of violence in order to sentence him to death. The prosecutor elicited the same opinion during cross-examination, and Buck was subsequently sentenced to death by the jury.

In a 6-2 finding in favor of Buck, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “This is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” Roberts also said the psychologist’s testimony “appealed to a powerful racial stereotype – that of black men as ‘violence prone.’”

Buck’s case will now go back to a lower court where he can pursue his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

In the second case, the Court ruled 5-3 that the rule protecting the secrecy of jury deliberations must be suspended if evidence is presented after a verdict that there was racial bias during those deliberations.

The case concerned Miguel Pena-Rodriguez, a California horse trainer who was arrested in 2007 after two teenage girls accused him of groping them in a horse barn.

The jury took 12 hours to find the defendant guilty on two misdemeanor counts, but deadlocked on the felony. Pena-Rodriguez was sentenced to two years’ probation and required to register as a sex offender.

But after the trial ended, two jurors told defense attorneys that another juror had made racist remarks in the jury room, saying he “believed the defendant was guilty because, in his experience as an ex-law enforcement officer, Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women.”

Based on the two jurors’ statements, Pena-Rodriguez appealed, but a lower court upheld the secrecy rule to prevent the jury deliberations from being used in his appeal, and the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

But writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury trial essentially trumps the secrecy surrounding jury deliberations and requires a trial court to consider evidence that jury deliberations were tainted.

“The nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. 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 and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule,” Kennedy wrote.

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