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."