470 U.S. 1039 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

WITT v. WAINWRIGHT , 470 U.S. 1039 (1985)

470 U.S. 1039

Johnny Paul WITT
Louie L. WAINWRIGHT, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections et al
No. 84-6325 (A-666)

Supreme Court of the United States

March 5, 1985

Rehearing Denied March 5, 1985.

See 470 U.S. 1046.

On petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The application for stay of execution of the sentence of death presented to Justice REHNQUIST and by him referred to the Court is denied. The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

Adhering to my view that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 231, 2973, 49 L. Ed.2d 859 (1976) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting), I would grant Witt's application for a stay of execution. But even if I thought otherwise, I would stay this execution because Witt's petition raises an issue-crucial to the administration of capital punishment in this country-on which there exists a split of authority among the Courts of Appeals. This Court is certain to grant certiorari in the immediate future to resolve this issue, and our resolution will govern the question whether Witt's death sentence is constitutional. Under these circumstances, a denial of Witt's application for a stay is manifestly unjust.

Page 470 U.S. 1039 , 1040


Witt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. After exhausting Florida's postconviction remedies, he sought federal habeas corpus relief. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld Witt's conviction but reversed his sentence on the basis of Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968 ). Witt v. Wainwright, 714 F.2d 1069 (CA11 1983). This Court reversed and remanded. Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412d 841 (1985). A second federal habeas petition was filed in Federal District Court on February 26, 1985, while Witt was simultaneously exhausting state remedies. On March 1, 1985, the District Court denied habeas relief and an application for stay of execution pending appeal. On March 4, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of habeas relief and denied an application for a stay of execution pending disposition of a petition for certiorari to this Court. On the same day Witt petitioned this Court for certiorari and applied for a stay of execution pending disposition of that petition. Barring a stay by this Court, Witt will be executed at 7 a.m. on March 6, 1985.

Witt alleges that his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the State submitted the general venire to a process of " death-qualification." The crux of Witt's argument is that the currently permissible, but constitutionally circumscribed, voir dire process in capital cases of excluding jurors opposed to the death penalty, see Wainwright v. Witt, supra, has the unconstitutional effect of rendering juries more predisposed to find a defendant guilty than would a jury from which those opposed to the death penalty had not been excused. This argument implicates both the right to an impartial jury and the right to a jury from which an identifiable segment of the community has not been excluded. See, e.g., Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 538, 701 (1975).

Witherspoon explicitly left open the question that Witt raises. The Court declined to address the question primarily because the empirical data then available were too fragmentary to permit conclusive resolution of the question whether "death-qualified" juries are unconstitutionally prone to convict. We made quite clear, however, that a sufficient empirical showing to that effect would raise grave constitutional questions:

    "[T]he question would then arise whether the State's interest in submitting the penalty issue to a jury capable of imposing capital punishment may be vindicated at the expense of the [470 U.S. 1039 , 1041]

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