Race-Based Statements Are Needed to Impeach a Jury Verdict

United States v. Demetrius Brooks

Case No. 19-2283

987 F.3d 593 (6th Cir. 2021)

Decided: February 9, 2021

Behind the shroud of secrecy found in a jury deliberation room is a melting pot of culture from many different walks of life. Twelve strangers, vetted by both parties, are tasked with deciding the fate of a criminal defendant. It is inevitable that these individuals are going to hold biases, often implicitly. In United States v. Demetrius Brooks, the Sixth Circuit addressed the ability to impeach a jury verdict based on racial biases even when no jurors have made a race-based statement. The takeaway is that impeachment of a jury verdict requires express statements of racial animus and not neutral statements that potentially suggest unexpressed racial biases.

In the case of Mr. Brooks, hours after a jury convicted him, the lone African-American juror emailed the District Court that the other jurors had pressured her into a guilty verdict.  In her email to the Court, the juror indicated that she believed there was reasonable doubt and more evidence was needed to actually find the defendant guilty. The juror expressed that she felt berated by her fellow jurors every time she mentioned a lack of evidence. Finally, she indicated that the other jurors were leaning towards convicting Mr. Brooks “because the cops [said] he [was] guilty.” Upon being informed of this email, Mr. Brooks requested an evidentiary hearing and a new trial based upon the fact that the jurors may have been racially biased.

In Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 134 S. Ct. 855 (2017), the Supreme Could held that the Sixth Amendment requires courts to consider evidence of racial bias when “a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant.” The Court’s reasoning was that racial bias implicates historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. Importantly, Peña does not cover every offhand comment indicating racial bias or hostility, but requires a showing that a juror made a statement “exhibiting overt racial bias” and “tending to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.”

On appeal, Mr. Brooks argued that the juror’s email satisfied Peña-Rodriguez on the grounds that the juror who sent it was African American. However, the Sixth Circuit was quick to note that the email did not mention race or suggest that other jurors made race-based remarks. Additionally, the email indicates that the jurors where critical of their fellow juror and not Mr. Brooks. Thus, the Sixth Circuit identified that this type of allegation can suggest the normal dynamic of jury deliberations, with the intense pressure often required to reach a unanimous decision. In sum, the Sixth Circuit held that a jury impeachment needed an express statement of racial animus.

Ultimately, this case demonstrates the pressure a juror faces in deciding the fate of a criminal defendant, while also indicating how today’s ever changing world can impact juries. However, the Sixth Circuit clearly has sent the message that actual statements of racial animus must be present instead of underlying racial overtones in order to impeach a jury verdict.