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Excessive force defense verdict remanded due to jurors’ racial bias

Kate Halloran April 29, 2021

Juror comments during deliberations that relied on racial stereotypes may warrant a new trial in a police misconduct case, the Sixth Circuit has ruled. Finding evidence indicating that a defense verdict may have been motivated by racial bias, the court ordered that a hearing be held to gather evidence about whether racial animus substantially prejudiced the jury’s decision-making. If so, the court said, the plaintiff would be entitled to a new trial. (Harden v. Hillman, 2021 WL 1257802 (6th Cir. Apr. 6, 2021).)

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John Harden was arrested at a convenience store by Keith Hillman, an off-duty police officer providing security for the store, after the clerk refused to sell Harden beer because he appeared intoxicated. Harden left the store but then returned to buy a bag of chips, at which point the officer pinned him against a counter and told him to leave or he was going to jail. Harden claimed that during the arrest, the officer slammed him to the ground and handcuffed him. After Harden complained of back pain, the officer called emergency medical services to take him to a hospital.

After the charges against him were dropped, Harden sued the officer and the city that employed him, alleging claims including excessive force under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and arrest without probable cause. The court granted the defendants summary judgment on all claims except the excessive force claim against Hillman, which proceeded to trial.

The jury found in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial based in part on defense counsel’s allegedly improper arguments to the jury. The court denied the motion. The plaintiff then filed for leave to contact one of the jurors because the juror’s stepfather had informed plaintiff counsel that during voir dire another juror had concealed that his father worked for the local police department. The court granted this motion, and the plaintiff submitted an affidavit for the juror, T.H., a Black woman.

T.H.’s affidavit stated that her jury service was “a very painful, humiliating, and embarrassing experience” because of other jurors’ “blatant racial stereotyping.” She explained that the other jurors—all of whom were white—commented repeatedly during deliberations that the plaintiff was an “addict” who was seeking a payout and was probably intoxicated throughout the trial. The jurors called the plaintiff counsel team “the Cosby Show” and outright discounted what they and the plaintiff said while taking the defendant at his word. T.H. also stated that the juror who had concealed his connection to the local police department told the other jurors that the officer had not used excessive force because police are allowed to deploy “force one step above what it takes to subdue a person.” She said the other jurors were persuaded by this and repeated it during deliberations.

The plaintiff again moved for a new trial based on this affidavit, and the district court denied the motion under Fed. R. Evid. 606(b). The plaintiff appealed to the Sixth Circuit, asserting that the lower court should have granted a new trial when presented with evidence that a juror had given an incorrect statement of the law and concealed his affiliation with the local police department during voir dire, as well as the racial stereotyping the jurors relied on during deliberations. Rule 606(b) prohibits using evidence from jury deliberations when challenging a verdict except in three circumstances: when “extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention, an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror, or a mistake was made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.”

The Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the juror’s incorrect characterization of the proper use of force fell within the extraneous prejudicial information exception because the affidavit did not demonstrate that this information came from an external source. Rather, it derived from “the general body of experiences that jurors are understood to bring with them to the jury room.” The court also rejected that the same juror lying about his police department affiliations fell within a Rule 606(b) exception because there was nothing more to support it than another juror’s testimony and case law requires that non-juror evidence of lying be presented after a verdict has been entered.

However, the court found evidence of racial bias that could have affected the case’s outcome. Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent involving racial bias in criminal cases that left the door open for their application to civil cases under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, the Sixth Circuit explained that the plaintiff must show that juror statements exhibited “overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality” of the deliberations and verdict. These statements must demonstrate “racial animus” that was a “significant motivating factor” in the jury’s decision. The question then for the court was whether the juror’s affidavit was sufficient to show this.

Noting the “pervasive and harmful stereotypes” about drug use in the Black community in America, the court found that repeated juror comments about the plaintiff being an addict and potentially using drugs or drinking during courtroom breaks were motivated by racial bias. The court also found that the jurors’ comparison of the plaintiff’s lawyers to a television show with an all-Black cast was racially motivated. The court clarified that the comments do not need to be directly related to race if there is “a clear statement that indicates that a juror relied on racial stereotypes or animus.” It held that the district court erred in excluding T.H.’s affidavit. On remand, the lower court must conduct a hearing to question the jurors and determine whether actual bias prejudiced the verdict. If that can be established, the plaintiff would be entitled to a new trial.

Louisville, Ky., attorney Aubrey Williams, who represents the plaintiff, said the case demonstrates how pervasive racial bias is. “Not only does it exist, but it is deeply embedded, insidious, invidious, and inextricably woven into the very fabric of American society. This is especially and particularly the case in the U.S. justice system. The scene was so painful to T.H., the Black juror, that she never wants to serve on a jury again.”