Judges confronted with allegations of racial or ethnic bias among jurors are allowed to investigate the claims, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled yesterday. The opinion created a new exception to case law historically barring judges from questioning jurors about their process.
Whether judges can probe racial or ethnic bias among jurors after a verdict is an issue that's divided federal courts, according to the opinion, which was written by Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby. The three-judge panel found a juror's allegation of racist statements made by another juror wasn't evidence of "extraneous influence" on a verdict – a standard for examining juror behavior – but was still serious enough to raise constitutional concerns.
"The insidiousness of racial or ethnic bias is therefore distinguishable from other forms of juror misconduct or incompetence," Blackburne-Rigsby wrote. "[W]e are unwilling to rigidly bind the discretion of trial judges to prevent further inquiry where it may be necessary to ensure that a defendant's constitutional rights to a fair and impartial trial and jury are not jeopardized by racial or ethnic bias."
Noting the strong precedent against questioning jurors post-verdict, though, the appeals court said the exception was limited to "rare and exceptional cases" and urged trial judges to "exercise caution" before taking testimony.
The decision didn't help the defendant, Gregory Kittle. The appeals court found District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Ann O'Regan Keary "implicitly recognized" she had discretion to look into the allegations and that she weighed the facts before deciding against questioning jurors. O'Regan Keary found the alleged statements didn't raise concerns about the fairness of the verdict, which the appeals court said was proof the judge recognized she could investigate and chose not to.
Kittle was represented by Stephanie Schneider of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. James Klein, chief of the defender office's appellate division, declined to comment. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Goodhand argued for the government. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, said his office was reviewing the opinion and had no comment.
Kittle, who is African American, was convicted of assault and two counts of felony threats. After the verdict was entered, a juror wrote a letter to the judge saying she wished deliberations hadn't taken so long, explaining that the group was "dealing with some jurors feeling that all 'blacks' are guilty regardless." O'Regan Keary provided the letter to the lawyers. Kittle's attorney asked for a mistrial, or alternatively to have the court hold a hearing to investigate the juror's claim.
The judge denied the request, recognizing longstanding precedent against post-verdict challenges by jurors and saying that she didn't see a need to investigate because there was "nothing in this letter which actually impugns the verdict itself."
Judge Phyllis Thompson and Senior Judge John Steadman also heard the case.