Wainwright v. Witt,
Annotate this Case
469 U.S. 412 (1985)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412 (1985)
Wainwright v. Witt
Argued October 2, 1984
Decided January 21, 1985
469 U.S. 412
Respondent was tried by a jury in a Florida state court and convicted of first-degree murder. In accordance with the jury's recommendation, he was sentenced to death. On appeal, respondent claimed that several prospective jurors had been improperly excluded for cause because of their opposition to capital punishment, in violation of the decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U. S. 510, but the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. After unsuccessfully seeking postconviction review in the state courts, respondent filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. That court denied the petition. The Court of Appeals reversed and granted the writ, holding that, on the basis of the voir dire questioning by the prosecutor, one of the prospective jurors was improperly excused for cause under Witherspoon. The court drew the standard for determining when a juror may properly be excluded from Witherspoon, supra, at 391 U. S. 522, n. 21, which states that jurors may be excluded for cause if they make it "unmistakably clear" that they would "automatically" vote against capital punishment without regard to the evidence or that their attitude toward the death penalty would prevent them from making an impartial decision as to the defendant's "guilt."
1. The proper standard for determining when a prospective juror may be excluded for cause because of his views on capital punishment is whether the juror's views would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." Adams v. Texas, 448 U. S. 38, 448 U. S. 45. In addition to dispensing with Witherspoon's reference to "automatic" decisionmaking, this standard does not require that a juror's bias be proved with "unmistakable clarity." Here, given this standard, the Court of Appeals at a minimum erred in focusing unduly on the lack of clarity of the questioning of the prospective juror, and in focusing on whether her answers indicated that she would "automatically" vote against the death penalty. Pp. 469 U. S. 418-426.
2. On a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the question of challenge of a prospective juror for bias is a "factual issue"
subject to § 2254(d), which requires a federal reviewing court to accord any findings of the state courts on "factual issues" a "presumption of correctness." Patton v. Yount, 467 U. S. 1025. This rule applies to a trial court's determination, such as the one made in this case, that a prospective capital sentencing juror was properly excluded for cause. Pp. 469 U. S. 426-430.
3. Under the facts of this case, the prospective juror in question was properly excused for cause. There were adequate "written indicia" of the trial judge's factual finding to satisfy § 2254(d). The transcript of voir dire shows that the prospective juror was questioned in the presence of both counsel and the trial judge, that at the end of the colloquy between the prosecutor and the juror the prosecutor challenged for cause, and that the challenge was sustained. Nothing more was required. The judge was not required to write a specific finding or announce for the record his conclusion that, or his reasons why, the prospective juror was biased. The judge's finding is therefore "presumed correct" absent anything in the record showing one of the reasons enumerated in the statute for avoiding the presumption. The question under the statute is whether the trial court's findings are fairly supported by the record, and here there is ample support for the trial judge's finding that the prospective juror's views would have prevented or substantially impaired the performance of her duties as a juror. Pp. 469 U. S. 430-435.
714 F.2d 1069 and 723 F.2d 769, reversed.
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 469 U. S. 436. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 469 U. S. 439.