Adams v. Texas
448 U.S. 38 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38 (1980)

Adams v. Texas

No. 79-5175

Argued March 24, 1980

Decided June 25, 1980

448 U.S. 38

Syllabus

Trials for capital offenses in Texas are conducted in two phases. First, the jury considers the question of the defendant's guilt or innocence. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the trial court holds a separate sentencing proceeding at which additional evidence in mitigation or aggravation is admissible. The jury is then required by statute to answer three specific questions concerning (1) whether the defendant's conduct causing the death at issue was deliberate, (2) whether the defendant's conduct in the future would constitute a continuing threat to society, and (3) whether his conduct in killing the victim was unreasonable in response to the victim's provocation, if any. If the jury answers "Yes" to each of these questions, the court must impose a death sentence, but if the jury answers "No" to any of the questions, the court imposes a life sentence. At the petitioner's murder trial, the Texas trial judge, pursuant to statute (§ 12.31(b)), excluded from the jury a number of prospective jurors who were unwilling or unable to take an oath that the mandatory penalty of death or life imprisonment would not "affect [their] deliberations on any issue of fact." The jury that was selected convicted petitioner and answered the statutory questions in the affirmative at the punishment phase, thus causing the death sentence to be imposed. On appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected petitioner's contention that the prospective jurors had been excluded in violation of Witherspoon v. Illinois,391 U. S. 510, wherein it was held that a State may not constitutionally execute a death sentence imposed by a jury culled of all those who revealed during voir dire examination that they had conscientious scruples against or were otherwise opposed to capital punishment.

Held: Section 12.31(b) was applied in this case to exclude jurors in contravention of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments as construed and applied in Witherspoon, supra. Pp. 448 U. S. 43-51.

(a) The general proposition established by Witherspoon and related cases that a juror may not be challenged for cause based on his views about capital punishment unless those views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and oath, is applicable to the bifurcated procedure employed by Texas in capital cases. If the Texas juror is to obey his

Page 448 U. S. 39

oath and follow Texas law, he must be willing not only to accept that, in certain circumstances, death is an acceptable penalty, but also to answer the three statutory questions without conscious distortion or bias. Pp 448 U. S. 43-47.

(b) Witherspoon and §12.31(b) may not coexist as separate and independent bases for excluding jurors so as to permit exclusion under §12.31(b) on grounds broader than permitted by Witherspoon. Although the State could, consistently with Witherspoon, use §12.31(b) to exclude prospective jurors whose views on capital punishment are such as to make them unable to follow the law or obey their oaths, the use of §12.31(b) to exclude jurors on broader grounds based on their opinions concerning the death penalty is impermissible. The appearance of neutrality created by the theoretical availability of §12.31(b) as a defense challenge to prospective jurors who favor the death penalty is not sufficiently substantial to take §12.31(b) out of Witherspoon's ambit. Pp. 448 U. S. 47-49.

(c) As §12.31(b) was employed here, the touchstone of the inquiry was not whether putative jurors could and would follow their instructions and answer the posited questions in the affirmative if they honestly believed the evidence warranted it beyond reasonable doubt, but rather whether the fact that the imposition of the death penalty would follow automatically from affirmative answers to the questions would have any effect at all on the jurors' performance of their duties. Such a test could, and did, exclude jurors whose only fault was to take their responsibilities with special seriousness or to acknowledge honestly that they might or might not be affected. It does not appear that these individuals were so irrevocably opposed to capital punishment as to frustrate the State's legitimate efforts to administer its constitutionally valid death penalty scheme. Accordingly, the Constitution disentitles the State to execute a death sentence imposed by a jury from which such prospective jurors have been excluded. Pp. 448 U. S. 49-51.

577 S.W.2d 717, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 448 U. S. 51. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 448 U. S. 51. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 448 U. S. 52.

Page 448 U. S. 40

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