Witherspoon v. Illinois
391 U.S. 510 (1968)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968)

Witherspoon v. Illinois

No. 1015

Argued April 24, 1968

Decided June 3, 1968

391 U.S. 510

Syllabus

Petitioner was adjudged guilty of murder and the jury fixed his penalty at death. An Illinois statute provided for challenges for cause in murder trials "of any juror who shall, on being examined, state that he has conscientious scruples against capital punishment, or that he is opposed to the same." At petitioner's trial, the prosecution, under that statute, eliminated nearly half the venire of prospective jurors by challenging all who expressed qualms about the death penalty. Most of the veniremen thus challenged for cause were excluded with no effort to find out whether their scruples would invariably compel them to vote against capital punishment. The Illinois Supreme Court denied post-conviction relief.

Held:

1. Neither on the basis of the record in this case nor as a matter of judicial notice of presently available information can it be concluded that the exclusion of jurors opposed to capital punishment results in an unrepresentative jury on the issue of guilt or substantially increases the risk of conviction. Pp. 391 U. S. 516-518.

2. Although it has not been shown that this jury was biased with respect to guilt, it is self-evident that, in its distinct role as arbiter of the punishment to be imposed, this jury fell woefully short of that impartiality to which a defendant is entitled under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. P. 391 U. S. 518.

3. A man who opposes the death penalty, no less than one who favors it, can make the discretionary choice of punishment entrusted to him by the State, and can thus obey the oath he takes as a juror; but in a nation where so many have come to oppose capital punishment, a jury from which all such people have been excluded cannot perform the task demanded of it -- that of expressing the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death. P. 391 U. S. 519.

4. Just as a State may not entrust the determination of whether a man is innocent or guilty to a tribunal organized to convict, so it may not entrust the determination of whether a man should live or die to a tribunal organized to return a verdict of death, and no sentence of death can be carried out, regardless of when

Page 391 U. S. 511

it was imposed, if the voir dire testimony indicates that the jury that imposed or recommended that sentence was chosen by excluding veniremen for cause simply because they voiced general objections to capital punishment or expressed conscientious or religious scruples against its infliction. Pp. 391 U. S. 521-523.

36 Ill.2d 471, 224 N.E.2d 259, reversed.

Page 391 U. S. 512

Primary Holding
"If the State had excluded only those prospective jurors who stated in advance of trial that they would not even consider returning a verdict of death, it could argue that the resulting jury was simply "neutral" with respect to penalty. But when it swept from the jury all who expressed conscientious or religious scruples against capital punishment and all who opposed it in principle, the State crossed the line of neutrality. In its quest for a jury capable of imposing the death penalty, the State produced a jury uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die."
Facts
The petitioner was found guilty of murder Illinois and the jury agreed upon a sentence of death. However, under the state statue, the prosecutor had unlimited challenges for cause in murder trials "of any juror who shall, on being examined, state that he has conscientious scruples against capital punishment, or that he is opposed to the same." At petitioner's trial, the prosecution eliminated nearly half the venire of prospective jurors by challenging all who expressed qualms about the death penalty. Most of the veniremen thus challenged for cause were excluded with no effort to find out whether their scruples would invariably compel them to vote against capital punishment.

Issues & Holdings

Issue: Whether an Illinois statute violated the United States Constitution by permitting unlimited “challenges for cause” by the prosecution to exclude potential jurors that said they would refuse to even consider the imposition of the death penalty as well all who said that they were opposed to capital punishment and all who indicated that they had conscientious scruples against inflicting it.
Holding: Yes

Opinions

Majority

Case Commentary

Coined the term "Witherspoon Excludables" - prospective jurors who state they cannot, under any circumstances, vote for the imposition of the death penalty.

Left-open the question of whether "death qualified" violated the Sixth Amendment -- answered in Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986)

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