Racist Comments by Jurors Undermined Right to Fair Trial, Says ACLU-WA Brief

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
October 6, 2009 12:00 am

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The ACLU-WA is urging the Washington Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court ruling that ordered a new trial because of racist comments made by jurors. An ACLU friend-of-the-court brief says that derogatory comments by jurors about the Japanese ethnicity of an attorney in the trial indicated racial bias that undermined the right to a fair trial.

“The right to a fair trial is the bedrock of our judicial system. We must be very careful to ensure that racial bias does not undercut this fundamental right,” said Sarah Dunne, legal director for the ACLU of Washington.

The brief was filed on behalf of the ACLU-WA, Columbia Legal Service, the Korean American Bar Association of Washington, the Latino/a Bar Association of Washington, the Loren Miller Bar Association, the Middle Eastern Legal Association of Washington, the Northwest Indian Bar Association, and the Vietnamese American Bar Association of Washington.

The case (Turner v. Stime) involves a claim of medical negligence. It was brought by a couple who alleged that a doctor failed to perform an adequate medical history and appropriate physical examination, which would have led to further tests and would have revealed the wife had pneumonia instead of terminal cancer. A jury trial resulted in a verdict in favor of the doctor on December 7, 2007.

After the verdict, a juror came forward to tell the attorney for the couple that he believed racial prejudice or bias played a role in the jury’s deliberations. He recounted that some of the jurors referred to the couple’s attorney Mr. Kamitomo as “Mr. Kamikaze,” “Mr. Miyagi,” “Mr. Miyashi,” and “Mr. Havacoma.” Another juror confirmed this allegation and added that a juror described the verdict as “almost appropriate” because it was rendered on Pearl Harbor Day.

The trial court granted a motion for a new trial on the ground of juror misconduct, finding that the jurors’ comments expressed “some prejudice to Mr. Kamitomo’s ethnicity and adversely affected the verdict in some fashion.”

The brief supports the trial court’s order for a new trial, pointing out that the right to a fair trial means a jury must be free of discrimination or bias. In this case, the couples’ attorney was referred to by derogatory names that identified him by his race and invoked stereotypes associated with individuals of Japanese heritage.

The brief was written by ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Shaakirrah Sanders of The Defender Association and ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and Nancy Talner.

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