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Supreme Court to Hear Case Involving Racial Bias in the Jury Room

Does what happens in the jury room stay in the jury room?

The U.S. Supreme Court takes up that question Tuesday in the case of a Hispanic man from Colorado who was convicted after a juror said during deliberations, "I think he did it because he's Mexican."

The court must decide whether guaranteeing a fair trial requires allowing exceptions to centuries-old rules that keep jury deliberations secret.

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The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether guaranteeing a fair trial requires allowing exceptions to centuries-old rules that keep jury deliberations secret. Alex Brandon / AP

Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez was charged with harassing and trying to grope two teenage girls in the women's bathroom at a horse racing track near Denver. He claimed it was a case of mistaken identity, and a fellow track employee testified that Peña-Rodriguez was elsewhere when the assault took place.

After he was convicted of two misdemeanor counts but acquitted on a felony charge, two jurors came forward to say that racist comments were made during deliberations.

Related: SCOTUS Clears Way for New Trial, Finds Racial Bias in Jury Selection

According to them, one of the jurors said he was a former law enforcement officer and that where he once patrolled, "nine times out of 10, Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls" and that he thought the defendant was guilty "because he's Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want."

As for the alibi witness, they recalled that the juror said the testimony wasn't credible because the witness "was an illegal." In fact, the man was a legal U.S. resident, though he traveled from Mexico to testify.

Peña-Rodriguez sought a new trial, but the judge denied the request as did two state courts of appeal.

Related: U.S. Supreme Court to Consider Racial Bias in Selecting Jurors

The English legal tradition that America inherited protected the secrecy of deliberations and held that jurors could not be hauled back into court to explain their verdicts. The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed that understanding.

In 1987, the justices declined to order a new trial in a Florida mail fraud case after it was disclosed that jurors regularly drank pitchers of beer during lunch breaks, used marijuana and cocaine, and feel asleep in court.

Preserving the secrecy of deliberations, the court said, is necessary "to assure full and frank discussion in the privacy of the jury room, to prevent the harassment of jurors by losing parties, and to preserve the community's trust in a system that relies on the decisions of laypeople."

In 2014, the Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in the case of South Dakota motorcycle rider whose leg was amputated after he was hit by a truck. During deliberations, a juror said her daughter was at fault in a fatal accident and that if she had been sued, "it would have ruined her life."

But the justice said then that there could be "cases of juror bias so extreme" that blocking an inquiry into the deliberations would violate the Constitution's fair trial guarantee.

Colorado argues in the current case that enough safeguards are in place to root out bias, including voir dire — the extensive questioning of potential jurors before the trial.

"The threat to verdict finality is substantial," said Frederick Yarger, Colorado's solicitor general. An exception to jury secrecy for allegations of racial prejudice "would likely be expanded to other biases and juror misconduct."

But Jeffrey Fisher of Stanford Law School, who represents Peña-Rodriguez, said racial bias in the jury room can never been excused.

"When a defendant's life or liberty is at stake, there is no valid interest in creating breathing space for jurors to argue that a defendant should be convicted because of his race."

Most states have rules that forbid post-trial inquiries into potential juror bias. But Fisher said eight states have made exceptions to allow jurors to testify about racial bias in the jury room — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Washington, Minnesota, New York and Oklahoma.

A decision is expected by late June.