Wednesday, December 1, 2010

No Such Thing as "Implied Bias"

Without fanfare, the Court today announces that there is no such thing as the Sixth Amendment doctrine of implied bias.
The 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every criminal defendant the right to an impartial jury. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ recent decision in Uranga v. State, however, threatens an essential aspect of this fundamental right by rejecting the notion of implied bias. Put simply, “implied bias” exists when it appears that a juror has, for whatever reason, a personal interest in the outcome of the case. When implied bias exists, the biased juror should normally be stricken from the panel.

In the Uranga case, the defendant was convicted of possession of methamphetamine. During the sentencing portion of the trial, the State presented extraneous offense evidence that the defendant had, on one occasion, attempted to evade police in his vehicle, and in the process, driven onto someone’s lawn. This event had been captured by the pursuing police officer’s in-car camera. After the jury watched the video, one of the jurors realized that it was his lawn on which the defendant had driven. Apparently, the juror never knew what happened to his lawn until the moment when he saw the video. Accordingly, the juror brought this to the attention of the court.

The judge then questioned the juror, outside the presence of the other jurors, about whether, after seeing this video and realizing that the defendant had damaged his lawn, he could continue to be fair and impartial in his role as a juror. Of course, the juror answered yes – he could be fair. After all, nobody wants to say that they cannot be fair. Nonetheless, the defense moved for a mistrial and the judge denied the motion. The juror remained on the case and the defendant was sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, the appellant complained that he was denied a fair and impartial jury when the judge allowed the particular juror to remain on the case for sentencing. The 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) held that the doctrine of implied bias should not be applied in this case and affirmed the conviction. The CCA now affirms, holding that in such a case as this, appellant must show actual bias in order to obtain relief. In so holding, the CCA all but extinguishes the doctrine of implied juror bias.

Judge Price, however, believes that the doctrine of implied bias is alive and well in American courts. Here’s a little of what he had to say in his dissent (joined by Judge Holcomb):
Without fanfare, the Court today announces that there is no such thing as the Sixth Amendment doctrine of implied bias.  The whole thing is apparently a figment of Justice O'Connor's imagination.  I am here to attest that the implied bias doctrine does exist.  I know it does; I have seen it...
[T]he Fifth Circuit regards the doctrine as so entrenched that it has seen fit to reverse a capital murder conviction on the basis of implied juror bias...
Regarding the CCA's requirement to show actual bias, Judge Price writes:
Determining actual bias of a juror's part is problematice to begin with, 'partly because the juror may have an interest in concealing his own bias and partly because the juror may be unaware of it.'  At a certain point the potential for bias may reach such a level that judges cannot depend of the time-honored tools for gauging credibility, such as tone of voice and demeanor, to ascertain the trustworthiness of the juror's claims of impartiality.
Even in Texas, this case surprised me.  I thought that the Court would have reversed and ordered a new sentencing hearing.  As the dissent points out, there can be "few more compelling reasons to impose punishment on an improper basis than the motive to avenge some wrong."  If for not other reason, the CCA should have reversed this case to avoid the appearance of impropriety in Texas courts.  Our prosecutors preach "justice" and "justice" should certainly include fairness.  The defendant may have still been sentenced to life with a new jury, but at least, we would know that he wasn't denied a fundamental constiutional right in the process.  He would be able to spend the rest of his life in prison knowing he got a fair shake.