The Supreme Court on Tuesday wrestled with a fresh dispute involving race and the U.S. criminal justice system in a case over whether a Hispanic man’s sexual harassment convictions should be thrown out because of a juror’s racially charged statements during deliberations.
The eight justices appeared divided over an appeal brought by Miguel Pena Rodriguez, who was convicted of three misdemeanor charges over a 2007 incident at a Colorado horse-racing track. Three teenage girls testified that Pena Rodriguez sexually groped them in a bathroom at the race track, where he worked.
Liberal justices voiced support for Pena Rodriguez, while conservatives were more skeptical of his arguments. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote in close cases, could determine whether the court can avoid a 4-4 split along ideological lines or whether the defendant wins.
At issue is whether racially biased statements violate a defendant’s right to a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. Prosecutors cite a long-standing legal tradition of jury deliberations remaining off-limits in any attempt to overturn a verdict.
Other jurors said one juror in the case, a former law enforcement officer, stated during deliberations that the defendant “did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.”
The Supreme Court is currently shorthanded following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley)