WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court, decrying the "recurring evil" of racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system, ruled on Monday in the case of a Hispanic man convicted on sex charges that a juror's racist comments during deliberations may be grounds for nullifying a verdict.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, said the need to erase racial prejudice from legal proceedings overrides long-standing policies aimed at keeping jury deliberations generally off-limits in bids to overturn verdicts. Kennedy, a conservative, was joined by the court's four liberals in the 5-3 ruling.
The justices threw out a Colorado state court decision that upheld the conviction of Miguel Pena Rodriguez, who was accused of sexually groping two teenage sisters in a bathroom in 2007 at a race track where he worked and was convicted on three misdemeanour counts. Pena Rodriguez can now seek a retrial.
A juror in his trial said during deliberations that Pena Rodriguez, a Mexican-born lawful permanent U.S. resident, "did it because he's Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want."
Kennedy called racial bias in the criminal justice system a "familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice."
It is the second time in two weeks the court has highlighted the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system. On Feb. 22, it gave a Texas death row inmate named Duane Buck a chance to avoid execution because his trial was tainted by testimony from a psychologist who stated the man was more likely to commit future crimes because he is black.
Chief Justice John Roberts condemned "a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice" in Buck's case, but dissented in Pena Rodriguez's case, along with two fellow conservatives.
The two competing issues in the case were the racially biased juror statements that Pena Rodriguez argued undermined his right to an impartial jury under the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment, and a Colorado policy that makes jury deliberations generally off-limits in any attempt to overturn a verdict.
Kennedy said when there is evidence a juror made a "clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus," the defendant can challenge the jury deliberations.
"When jurors disclose an instance of racial bias as serious as the one involved in this case, the law must not wholly disregard its occurrence," Kennedy added.
Pena Rodriguez's appeal focused on whether the trial's outcome was influenced by the comments made by a former law enforcement officer, referred to as "H.C.," who served as a juror in the proceedings in Arapahoe County, near Denver.
According to other jurors, "H.C." also said that "where he used to patrol, nine times out of 10 Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls." The man was reported to have said "Mexican men had a bravado that caused them to believe they could do whatever they wanted with women."
In dissent, conservative Justice Samuel Alito criticized the ruling for undermining the long-established tradition of jury confidentiality.
"For centuries, it has been the judgment of experienced judges, trial attorneys, scholars and lawmakers that allowing jurors to testify after trial about what took place in the jury room would undermine the system of trial by jury that is integral to our legal system," Alito wrote.
The court's ruling "pries open the door" to the jury room, Alito said. "This is a startling development, and although the court tries to limit the degree of intrusion, it is doubtful that there are principled reasons for preventing the expansion of today's holding," Alito added.
But Kennedy wrote that "blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one" despite policies on jury confidentiality.
Pena Rodriguez was working as a horse keeper at the Arapahoe race track in 2007 when he was arrested after the two teenage sisters, the 14-year-old and 16-year-old daughters of a jockey, identified him as the man who groped them in the women's bathroom of a barn at the racetrack where they had gone to take showers.
Pena Rodriguez, who said he was wrongly accused, was convicted on three counts of unlawful sexual conduct and harassment but not on the most serious charge of attempted sexual assault. He was sentenced to two years of probation and had to register as a sex offender.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham