Jurors’ statements ‘built upon prejudice’ fail to result in a new trial

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DENVER — “Gross generalizations” about American Indians by jurors in an assault case failed to override federal appellate judges’ concerns about jury confidentiality, according to a ruling Nov. 11 in 10th Circuit Court.

Kerry Dean Benally, 36, of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, was convicted in federal court in Utah of assaulting a BIA officer with a dangerous weapon in the White Mountain area of southeastern Utah in 2007.

Although Benally’s conviction was tossed out in District Court and a new trial granted based on jurors’ failure to answer racial-bias questions honestly, the appellate court reinstated the conviction.

District Court records show that the BIA officer, who was struck with a large flashlight while struggling with Benally, said Benally “appeared intoxicated.”

Benally was granted a new trial after it was revealed that during deliberation jurors discussed Indians’ alleged drunkenness and violence, despite pre-trial denials of racial bias under attorneys’ questioning.

“Would the fact that the defendant is a Native American affect your evaluation of the case?” and “Have you ever had a negative experience with any individuals of Native American descent? And, if so, would that experience affect your evaluation of the facts of this case?” prospective jurors were asked, and none answered affirmatively.

However, after arriving at a guilty verdict, one juror alleged improper influence had been exerted on the deliberation by the jury’s foreman and another juror. The foreman was quoted as saying he had lived on or near an Indian reservation and that when “Indians get alcohol, they all get drunk, and when they get drunk, they get violent.”

The juror also said in an affidavit that some jurors discussed the need to “send a message back to the reservation.” Despite bringing forward the allegations of improper influence, the complaining juror joined the other jurors in a unanimous guilty verdict.

Although the district court said the evidence of juror misconduct called for a new trial, the U.S. Attorney argued successfully in appellate court that racially biased statements do not override the confidentiality of jury deliberations.

The appellate court weighed issues of defendants’ concerns about jury impartiality against the potential public harm if internal jury deliberations were subject to later review, noting the Sixth Amendment calls for “a fair trial, but not a perfect one, for there are no perfect trials.” Other courts have allowed for some exceptions in rare cases of racial bias, the judges acknowledged.

At the same time, “the statements about Native Americans in particular were gross generalizations built upon prejudice and had no place in the jury room,” the ruling states.