One Angry Man: Supreme Court Confronts Racial Bias in Jury Deliberations

Update 3/6/17: Today the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in the defendant’s favor and held that jury deliberations can be examined when there are allegations of racial bias. I’ll have more details soon in a future post.

In the classic movie “Twelve Angry Men,” jurors file into a jury room to deliberate on the case of a young man charged with stabbing his father to death. Upon a preliminary vote, eleven of the twelve are in favor of a quick guilty verdict. The sole holdout, Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda) insists they should not rush and that the young man’s fate deserves at least some of their time and consideration. As the deliberations proceed, every other juror eventually comes to agree with #8, as they discover different reasons to have a reasonable doubt. The film ends with the jurors heading back to the courtroom to return a “not guilty” verdict.

Sorry — maybe I should have led this post with, “Spoiler Alert.”

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The Jury Votes in “Twelve Angry Men”

Part of the appeal of “Twelve Angry Men” probably stems from the way it pulls back the curtain on a scene that most of us never see. Jury deliberations take place in secret. Although jurors generally are not prohibited from discussing the deliberations once the case is over, the public usually does not get much information about what goes on behind the jury room door.

The confidential nature of jury deliberations is reflected in a long-standing rule in federal court and in most states providing that information about what was discussed during jury deliberations cannot later be used to question the verdict. In federal court this rule is embodied in Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which provides that a juror’s testimony about things discussed or taking place during jury deliberations is not admissible in a later proceeding to challenge the jury’s decision.

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a fascinating case, Peña- Rodriguez v. Colorado, that tests the limits of this rule when it collides with the compelling societal interest in not allowing racial bias to taint a criminal conviction.

Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado

The defendant, Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, was accused of groping two teenage girls at the Colorado racetrack where he worked. The girls were inside a restroom when a man they had seen at the racetrack earlier entered and asked them if they wanted to “drink or party.” When they said no, the man turned off the lights and tried to grab the girls. He touched one of them on the buttocks; the other girl felt his hand on her shoulder and moving towards her breast but she was able to push it away.

The girls escaped and ran to their father, who also worked at the racetrack, to tell him about the incident. Based on their description the father believed the man was Peña-Rodriguez, and he notified the authorities. Peña-Rodriguez was later stopped by the police and the girls identified him as their assailant.

The state of Colorado charged Peña-Rodriguez with one felony count of attempted sexual assault on a minor and three misdemeanors. The government’s evidence consisted primarily of the testimony and identifications from the victims. The defense presented alibi testimony from the defendant’s co-worker, who testified that the defendant was with him at the time of the offense. After what appears to have been a lengthy and difficult period of deliberations, the jury found Peña-Rodriguez guilty of the misdemeanors. They could not reach a verdict on the felony count, which was later dismissed.

After trial, two of the jurors spoke with defense counsel. They reported that one of the jurors – identified in the case only as “H.C.” — had expressed bias against the defendant during the jury deliberations. H.C., a former law enforcement officer, reportedly said the defendant was probably guilty because he was Mexican and Mexican men “ take whatever they want.” He said that Mexican men believe they can do whatever they want with women, and that when he was working on patrol, “nine times out of ten” Mexican men were guilty of being sexually aggressive towards women. He also said the defendant’s alibi witness could not be believed because he was “an illegal.” (This was not true; the witness testified that he was a legal resident.)

After obtaining affidavits from the two jurors the defense requested a new trial, arguing that racial animus had tainted the jury’s verdict. But Colorado, like most states, has a rule of evidence essentially identical to Federal Rule 606(b) that prohibits challenges to jury verdicts based on testimony about what happened during deliberations. Based on that rule, the trial court denied the motion. The Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado Supreme Court affirmed this decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

challenging racial bias in jury deliberations - when can a court look behind the jury room door?

The Rule Against Impeachment of Jury Verdicts

All sides in the case agreed, of course, that H.C.’s comments were reprehensible and have no proper place in jury deliberations. But the issue is whether, once those comments are discovered, a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial requires an exception to the rule against impeaching a verdict based on evidence of what went on during jury deliberations.

The rule dates back more than two centuries and is based on several policy considerations. One concern is that allowing such evidence might inhibit full and frank discussions in the jury room, particularly about sensitive or controversial topics. Jurors should be free to speak their minds without fear that their statements may later become the subject of litigation challenging the verdict and potentially accusing them of misbehavior. The possibility of subsequent proceedings based on deliberations might also make jurors reluctant to return difficult or controversial verdicts.

Another concern is protecting jurors from harassment. If post-verdict litigation based on jury deliberations became routine, attorneys would have an incentive to track down jurors, even weeks or months after a case was concluded, to probe their recollections about deliberations and look for possible ways to get another bite at the apple. It’s true that jurors now sometimes voluntarily remain after a case is over to discuss deliberations informally with counsel – but that’s far different from being subpoenaed, put on the stand, and cross-examined about deliberations weeks or even months after the case is over.

But perhaps the paramount rationale for the rule is verdict finality: there is a public interest in having criminal judgments be final and respected and not subject to potentially endless rounds of challenges and rehearings. Public respect for and confidence in the jury system would be undermined if jury verdicts were routinely subject to attack and litigation long after a case is supposedly over.

There are other safeguards in the system that protect against juror bias. The most important is voir dire, the jury selection process, where attorneys and the judge may ask questions designed to ferret out any potential biases. A primary purpose of voir dire is to screen out at the front end any potential jurors who may be biased or otherwise unable to be impartial. In addition, jury panels are required to represent a fair cross-section of the community, and racial bias in jury selection is prohibited. If there are signs of juror bias during trial or deliberations but prior to a verdict, other jurors or court personnel may bring those matters to the judge’s attention. And the requirement of a unanimous verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt dilutes the ability of any one prejudiced juror to influence the final outcome of the case.

(In this regard, it’s interesting to note that the defense at Peña-Rodriguez’s trial chose not to voir dire the potential jurors about any potential bias against Hispanics – a decision that apparently surprised the trial judge. And the two jurors who later raised concerns about H.C.’s comments did not bring those concerns to the judge’s attention during the jury deliberations, when the judge could have acted on them.)

Relying on these policy rationales and the presence of these other safeguards, the Supreme Court has upheld Rule 606(b) against Sixth Amendment challenges in cases involving significant juror misconduct. For example, in Tanner v. United States the Court refused to allow the defendant to present evidence that a majority of the jurors in his case had been drinking, using drugs, or sleeping during the proceedings. And in Warger v. Shauers, a car accident case, the Court refused to allow evidence that a juror had revealed during deliberations that her daughter had been involved in a very similar accident. Neither Tanner nor Warger, however, involved claims of racial bias.

Should There Be an Exception for Juror Bias Based on Race?

Although there are many sound arguments in favor of the rule against impeachment of verdicts, the public interest also demands that racial animus not be allowed to infect court proceedings. That’s what makes the Peña-Rodriguez case so intriguing. Once the information about Juror H.C.’s statements was discovered, can the criminal justice system allow that verdict to stand and still maintain its legitimacy?

(As an aside, strictly speaking this case is about bias based on ethnicity or national origin, not race. But both sides agreed that for purposes of the defendant’s right to a fair trial this was not a meaningful distinction and used the term “racial bias” throughout the case.)

I think it’s difficult for the justice system to tolerate an outcome that seems so infected by potential bias, and it may well be that the Court will rule in Peña-Rodriguez’s favor. But exactly how the Court resolves the issue will be extremely interesting. The case presents difficult line-drawing questions and raises fears of a number of proverbial slippery slopes.

The most obvious question concerns how to deal with other kinds of bias. At oral argument Peña-Rodriguez’s attorney wasn’t more than a minute into his presentation when Chief Justice Roberts started pressing him on whether a ruling in his favor would mean that future courts also would have to allow challenges to verdicts based on religious bias. Justice Ginsburg posed a hypothetical case involving a car accident where a juror says that all women are terrible drivers and so the woman is probably responsible – would that be subject to challenge as well?

Justices Kagan and Sotomayor in particular seemed willing to argue that “race is different.” They implied the Court could create an exception that encompassed only race and not other forms of bias, given our country’s long struggle against racial discrimination. But the Chief Justice and Justice Alito in particular seemed less inclined to believe that such a line could reasonably be drawn.

I tend to agree that drawing such a line is problematic. Could the justice system really tolerate a rule that said a defendant could challenge a verdict following expressions of racial bias but not a verdict based on a juror’s bias towards the defendant’s religion, gender, or sexual orientation? It’s arguable that allowing inquiry into only certain kinds of bias actually does more to undermine faith in the integrity of the justice system than a simple blanket prohibition against any such inquiries at all.

A rule that “race (or ethnicity) is different” could lead to some bizarre results. Suppose a defendant of Middle Eastern descent is on trial. Presumably, if during deliberations a juror said he believed the defendant was probably guilty because he was an Arab, that verdict could be challenged. But if a juror said that same defendant was probably guilty because he was a Muslim, that statement could not be used to impeach the verdict.

The more you start to think about how to draw the lines, the more you start to see the appeal of the current prophylactic rule that simply prohibits any such inquiries.

Much of the debate in this case also seems to underestimate the importance of the requirements of twelve jurors and a unanimous verdict. There’s a reason we have twelve jurors and require unanimity on proof beyond a reasonable doubt: the ability of any one juror to use improper arguments to sway an entire jury is greatly reduced.

Peña-Rodriguez’s attorneys argued in their brief that, “convicting someone of a crime because of his race tramples our most vital principles of liberty and equality.” No doubt that is true — but it’s not clear that’s what happened. We know that H.C. made racially biased statements, but that is not the same as saying the jury convicted the defendant because of his race. Are we to assume that the other eleven jurors were simply sheep, powerless to resist the influence of H.C.’s odious opinions? Or is it not just as likely that many of the jurors would consider the statements reprehensible and tend to “tune out” H.C. and discount anything further that he said about the merits of the case?

In “Twelve Angry Men” there is a scene where one of the jurors goes on an extended rant demonstrating bias against the defendant and arguing that “these people” are all animals with no morals. The other jurors, rather than being swayed by his arguments, one by one slowly get up, walk away from the juror and ignore him, until he finally falls silent. That’s only Hollywood, but it does effectively demonstrate the limited potential of a single biased juror to sway the unanimous verdict of all twelve. It also highlights the potential difficulty of evaluating the total dynamic of a jury’s deliberations based on a handful of statements taken in isolation.

Peña-Rodriguez’s attorneys would respond that they should at least have a chance to let a judge consider the statements in light of the overall case to determine whether they might have swayed the jury’s verdict. Of course a judge is not in the jury room during deliberations, so his or her ability to assess the impact of any statements may be somewhat limited. The Peña-Rodriguez  jury deliberated for twelve hours – how does the judge assess the impact of a handful of bigoted statements by one juror, short of having a full-blown hearing with all the other jurors testifying?

We could have a rule automatically throwing out any verdict where any discriminatory statements are made during deliberations, without trying to evaluate their impact. This would have the virtue of simplicity, but it’s a bit odd to allow relief only in those cases in which a juror is willing to vocalize his prejudices. Unfortunately, with our polarized society being what it is, it is probably safe to assume that inappropriate bias sometimes exists in jurors who do not admit it. Perhaps it is better simply to rely on the requirement of a unanimous verdict and other safeguards to prevent a biased juror from determining the final outcome, rather than having a rule that would grant one defendant relief over another simply because a juror in one defendant’s case was more blatant about his prejudices.

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In the end, I think it’s going to be hard for the Court to allow Peña-Rodriguez’s conviction to stand in light of what took place during deliberations. And in reality, cases where this kind of evidence surfaces will probably be very rare, so perhaps the concerns about opening the floodgates to potential challenges and juror harassment are misplaced. Maybe the holding can be limited to criminal cases, and only to cases involving claims of racial bias. But I don’t envy the Justices trying to craft a rule that will give defendants like Mr. Peña-Rodriguez a remedy without completely gutting the sound policy against impeaching jury verdicts that has existed since the country’s founding. And if that policy is gutted, the unintended consequences for the jury system could be severe.

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When Is Fraud Involving a Bank Not Bank Fraud? Shaw v. United States

Update 12/12/16: Today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Shaw and held that Section 1 of the bank fraud statute applies to a scheme to obtain deposits held by the bank even if the bank suffers no financial loss. The Court also affirmed that a bank does have a property interest in deposits that it holds, as both sides had basically ended up agreeing during oral argument. The Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit to consider the adequacy of the jury instructions, whether that issue was properly preserved, and whether any error in the instructions may have been harmless. See discussion below.

On the first day of arguments this term, the Supreme Court considered the scope of the federal bank fraud statute. The case, Shaw v. United States, involves complex questions concerning the definition of fraud and the nature of property rights. It’s a classic, nerdy white collar battle over statutory interpretation — and it was all completely unnecessary.

The federal bank fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344, makes it a crime to execute or attempt to execute a scheme or artifice:

1) to defraud a financial institution; or

2) to obtain any of the moneys, funds, credits, assets, securities, or other property owned by, or under the custody or control of, a financial institution, by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.

Shaw involves the proper interpretation of clause 1 and what it means to defraud a financial institution. In particular, the issue is whether the defendant must intend to obtain property owned by the bank itself and cause the bank financial injury, or whether it is sufficient to show merely that the defendant intended to obtain property being held by the bank, such as customer deposits.

The defendant, Lawrence Shaw, was convicted for executing an elaborate scheme to steal money from a Bank of America checking account held by Stanley Hsu. After wrongfully obtaining Hsu’s bank statements and personal information, Shaw was able to open a PayPal account in Hsu’s name. He then repeatedly transferred money from Hsu’s checking account into the PayPal account and ultimately into other bank accounts that Shaw controlled. Shaw was able to siphon more than $300,000 out of Hsu’s account before Hsu, who was living in Taiwan, detected the losses.

Due to the operation of banking laws, Bank of America actually ended up suffering no financial loss as a result of the scheme. PayPal, which had allowed the phony account to be opened, ended up on the hook for about $100,000 of the loss. Hsu, who had failed to notify Bank of America about the fraud in a timely manner, personally lost nearly $200,000.

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PayPal was left holding the bag

Shaw was indicted on multiple counts of executing a scheme to defraud a financial institution under clause 1 of the bank fraud statute. At trial and on appeal, Shaw did not deny his culpability. His defense was basically that the government had charged him under the wrong section of the statute. Clause 1, he argued, requires the government to prove that Shaw was targeting property owned by the bank itself and intended to expose the bank to a financial loss. Shaw maintained that his goal all along was simply to get Hsu’s money. He never had any intent to harm the bank, and the bank in fact did not suffer a loss. Accordingly, Shaw argued, his conduct, although fraudulent, did not constitute a scheme to defraud the bank within the meaning of the statute.

Shaw maintained that his scam should have been charged under clause 2, which covers schemes to obtain property of others in the custody of the bank – in this case, Hsu’s deposits. (This, of course, is not a very sexy or sympathetic defense; Shaw isn’t saying,“I didn’t do it,” he’s saying “Yeah, I did it, but you charged me the wrong way.” But sexy or not, if he prevails his convictions will be reversed. As I’m sure some famous football coach said once, an ugly win is still a win.)

The trial court ruled against Shaw and held the government was not required to prove that Shaw intended the bank to suffer any financial harm or to lose its own property. The judge instructed the jury that a scheme to defraud a financial institution required only proof that the defendant intended to deceive or cheat the bank somehow, but did not require proof that the defendant intended the bank to suffer any loss. The jury convicted Shaw on fourteen counts of bank fraud.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Shaw’s convictions. The court of appeals reasoned that Congress could not have intended liability for bank fraud to turn on arcane banking rules and regulations about who will bear the loss. Requiring proof of intent to harm the bank itself, the court said, would make prosecuting bank fraud unreasonably difficult. Because the goal of the statute is to protect the integrity of the banking system, any scheme that deceives a bank will suffice, regardless of who ultimately is harmed. The court therefore agreed with the trial judge that clause 1 requires only proof that the defendant intended to deceive the bank, not that he intended to expose the bank itself to any financial loss.

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SCOTUS Agrees to Weigh In

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Shaw’s appeal, and the case was argued this past Tuesday. The courts of appeal are divided on the question presented in Shaw. The Ninth Circuit is in the minority; most courts agree with Shaw’s argument that clause 1 of the bank fraud statute requires the government to prove the defendant intended to expose the bank itself to a risk of financial loss.

As I discussed in my last post, to defraud someone usually means to deprive him of money or property through some kind of deception. The law generally draws a distinction between defrauding someone and merely deceiving them; a scheme to defraud typically requires not only a deception but also an intent to injure the victim by depriving them of their property.

Based on this understanding of fraud, the plain wording of the statute supports Shaw’s argument that the scheme must target the bank’s own property. The language “scheme to defraud a financial institution” suggests that the financial institution itself would be the victim of the fraud. This in turn would mean that the scheme to defraud would be designed to deprive the bank of money or property.

But then the question becomes what qualifies as “property.” Although (as the Justices somewhat testily pointed out) the government’s brief was not entirely clear on this point, during oral argument the government confirmed that it agreed a scheme to defraud a bank requires intent to deprive the bank of property and that merely deceiving the bank is not enough. The government disagreed with Shaw, however, about the nature of the property interests protected by the statute, and about whether depriving the bank of a property interest necessarily requires exposing the bank to financial harm.

The government agreed that the Supreme Court has consistently held that a scheme to defraud means a scheme to deprive a victim of money or property, but noted that the Court has always interpreted the term “property” very broadly. Fraud, the government argued, protects both tangible and intangible property, and protects property that is merely in one’s possession as well as property that one owns.

Under this broad definition of property, a scheme to obtain customer deposits is in fact a scheme to deprive the bank of its possessory property interest in those deposits. The same would be true of a scheme to steal other assets being held by a bank, such as customer valuables in a safe deposit box. There is no requirement that the bank actually own the property or suffer a financial loss; the law of fraud requires only that the scheme contemplated depriving the bank of its possessory property right in the assets it holds.

During oral arguments, Shaw’s attorney ultimately agreed with the government that the bank’s possessory interest in customer deposits could qualify as a property interest for purposes of fraud. A line of questions from Justice Kagan honed in on the fact that both sides now seemed to agree about the definition of “property.” Shaw’s attorney maintained, however, that the ordinary understanding of a scheme to defraud meant that to deprive the bank of that property interest required proof of intent that the bank would bear the ultimate financial loss. The Justices seemed more skeptical on this point, with Justice Alito in particular arguing that you could deprive someone of a possessory interest in property without necessarily causing them a personal loss.

But even if the Court ends up agreeing with the government that Shaw’s scheme deprived Bank of America of a property interest in Hsu’s deposits, Shaw may still prevail – because that’s not what the jury instructions said. During oral argument, several of the Justices suggested that the key issue in the case is really the jury instructions. Under questioning from Justice Sotomayor, Shaw’s attorney argued that even if Shaw loses on the interpretation of the bank fraud statute, his convictions must be reversed because the jury instructions were flawed. When the Assistant to the Solicitor General began his argument, the Justices immediately started peppering him with questions about the jury instructions and whether they adequately conveyed the requirements of fraud.

The jury instructions could be read to say that depriving the bank of property was not required, and that it was enough if Shaw merely intended to deceive the bank. The instructions thus arguably failed to distinguish between defrauding and merely deceiving a victim, which is usually critical to the law of fraud. At oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that the Ninth Circuit’s opinion also said the bank only needed to be deceived – which seems to endorse the incorrect standard. There was some additional back and forth about the grammatical structure of the instructions, how the jury would have interpreted them, and whether the issue was properly preserved, so how the Court will come out on that question is unclear. But it’s very possible the government could win the legal fight over the definition of bank fraud and still lose the appeal based on flawed jury instructions.

The Implications of Shaw

Although Shaw has implications for banking law and the definition of fraud – and certainly has significant implications for Mr. Shaw — it does not really implicate broader interests about federalism or overcriminalization that are present in many white collar cases. There is no real universe of cases that will no longer be subject to federal prosecution if Shaw wins; Shaw himself admits he could have been prosecuted under clause 2 of the bank fraud statute.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief supporting Shaw on federalism grounds. It argued the bank fraud statute should be construed narrowly in order to limit the scope of federal prosecutions and allow the states to pursue such cases. But this argument doesn’t really hold water. Regardless of the outcome here, cases like Shaw’s will still be subject to federal prosecution, whether through other provisions of the bank fraud statute or through other laws such as mail and wire fraud. There are more than enough arrows in the federal prosecutor’s quiver.

But however it ultimately comes out, Shaw will be instructive in one more area: the importance of sound prosecutorial charging decisions. Clause 2 of the bank fraud law seems clearly to cover Shaw’s conduct. If prosecutors had simply charged Shaw under clause 2 in the first place, this entire issue could have been avoided. Prosecutors would have saved themselves a lot of headaches, time and money that had to be devoted to defending the convictions.

This isn’t a case of over-charging of the type that has caused the Court concern in recent years. There’s no question that Shaw’s conduct was criminal and deserved to be prosecuted. But by charging the case the way they did, prosecutors handed Shaw an issue for appeal that may well be successful. It’s what that football coach would call an unforced error.

Shaw should bring some clarity to the law of bank fraud. But the real lesson of Shaw for prosecutors should be a reminder of the importance of careful charging decisions and selecting the proper statutes when crafting indictments.

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