Lower courts, state and federal, are split on this issue, with some—such as the Tenth Circuit and Pennsylvania—supporting the rule, and others, such as the First Circuit and Massachusetts, holding that race prejudice is so serious as to overcome it.
The Supreme Court’s own cases suggest the justices view racial bias at trial with distaste. In a 2016 case, Foster v. Chatman, the Court rebuked the state of Louisiana after a state prosecutor made overt efforts to keep African Americans off a jury. This Term, it will consider a case in which a jury pondering the death penalty heard racist evidence incompetently proffered by the defendant’s own lawyer.
On the other hand, the Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the Mansfield rule. In a 1987 case, it held, 5-4, that a court should not hear juror testimony that the other jurors were getting drunk at lunch, smoking pot, sniffing cocaine, selling each other drugs in the courthouse, and falling into drug-and-alcohol-induced stupors during afternoon testimony. “There is little doubt that post-verdict investigation into juror misconduct would in some instances lead to the invalidation of verdicts reached after irresponsible or improper juror behavior,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority. “It is not at all clear, however, that the jury system could survive such efforts to perfect it.”
Not only would juror testimony undermine the finality of a verdict, she wrote, but “full and frank discussion in the jury room, jurors’ willingness to return an unpopular verdict, and the community’s trust in a system that relies on the decisions of laypeople would all be undermined by a barrage of post-verdict scrutiny of juror conduct.” Instead, she said, parties must rely on other means of detecting juror bias, including questioning jurors before they are empaneled and observing them in the courtroom. And again, jurors witnessing misconduct can come forward before the verdict.
Two years ago, the Court unanimously reaffirmed the rule. In Warger v. Schauers, a juror in an auto-accident court swore that another juror had injected her own daughter’s auto accident—and fear of a lawsuit—into deliberations. At jury selection, the jurors had been asked whether there was any reason she could not be impartial, and had said no.
The no-impeachment rule, the Court said, does not violate the Sixth Amendment. But neither Supreme Court case concerned overt racism inside the jury room. The Warger court added a footnote: “There may be cases of juror bias so extreme that, almost by definition, the jury trial right has been abridged.”
If this case—with its clear evidence of shocking racism in the jury room—is not such a case, Peña Rodriguez might ask, what is?