Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986)
The "death qualification" of a jury via the removal of "Witherspoon-excludables" does not violate the “fair-cross section” or “impartiality” requirements of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Ardia McCree was charged with capital felony murder in the state of Arkansas. During voir dire, over McCree’s objections, the judge removed for cause all "Witherspoon-excludables" (prospective jurors who stated that they could not under any circumstances vote for the imposition of the death penalty.) McCree was convicted of capital felony murder, however, at the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury rejected the State’s request for death. McCree was instead sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.Issues & Holdings
Issue: Whether during a capital trial does the Constitution prohibit the removal of prospective jurors whose opposition to the death penalty is so strong that it would prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties at the sentencing phase of the trial?
- William Hubbs Rehnquist
See Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U. S. 510 (1968) for more on the "Witherspoon Excludables"
U.S. Supreme CourtLockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986)
Lockhart v. McCree
Argued January 13, 1986
Decided May 5, 1986
476 U.S. 162
At respondent's Arkansas state court trial for capital felony murder, the judge at voir dire removed for cause, over respondent's objections, those prospective jurors who stated that they could not under any circumstances vote for the imposition of the death penalty -- that is, so-called "Witherspoon-excludables" under the principles of Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U. S. 510. The jury convicted respondent, but, at the sentencing phase of the trial, it rejected the State's request for the death penalty and set punishment at life imprisonment without parole. The conviction was affirmed on appeal, and respondent's petition for state postconviction relief was denied. He then sought federal habeas corpus relief, contending that the "death qualification" of the jury by the removal for cause of the "Witherspoon-excludables" violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to have his guilt or innocence determined by an impartial jury selected from a representative cross-section of the community. The District Court ruled that "death qualification" of the jury prior to the guilt phase of the bifurcated trial violated both the fair cross section and the impartiality requirements of the Constitution. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground that removal for cause of "Witherspoon-excludables" violated respondent's Sixth Amendment right to a jury selected from a fair cross-section of the community.
Held: The Constitution does not prohibit the removal for cause, prior to the guilt phase of a bifurcated capital trial, of prospective jurors whose opposition to the death penalty is so strong that it would prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties as jurors at the sentencing phase of the trial. This is so even assuming, arguendo, that the social science studies introduced in the courts below were adequate to establish that "death qualification" in fact produces juries somewhat more "conviction-prone" than "non-death-qualified" juries. Pp. 476 U. S. 173-183.
(a) "Death qualification" of a jury does not violate the fair cross section requirement of the Sixth Amendment, which applies to jury panels or venires but does not require that petit juries actually chosen reflect the composition of the community at large. Even if the requirement were extended to petit juries, the essence of a fair cross section claim is the systematic exclusion of a "distinctive group" in the community
-- such as blacks, women, and Mexican-Americans -- for reasons completely unrelated to the ability of members of the group to serve as jurors in a particular case. Groups defined solely in terms of shared attitudes that would prevent or substantially impair members of the group from performing one of their duties as jurors, such as the "Witherspoon-excludables" at issue here, are not "distinctive groups" for fair cross section purposes. "Death qualification" is carefully designed to serve the State's legitimate interest in obtaining a single jury that can properly and impartially apply the law to the facts of the case at both the guilt and sentencing phases of a capital trial. Pp. 476 U. S. 173-177.
(b) Nor does "death qualification" of a jury violate the constitutional right to an impartial jury on the theory asserted by respondent that, because all individual jurors are to some extent predisposed towards one result or another, a constitutionally impartial jury can be constructed only by "balancing" the various predispositions of the individual jurors, and when the State "tips the scales" by excluding prospective jurors with a particular viewpoint, an impermissibly partial jury results. An impartial jury consists of nothing more than jurors who will conscientiously apply the law and find the facts. Respondent's view of jury impartiality is both illogical and impractical. Neither Witherspoon, supra, nor Adams v. Texas, 448 U. S. 38, supports respondent's contention that a State violates the Constitution whenever it "slants" the jury by excluding a group of individuals more likely than the population at large to favor the defendant. Here, the removal for cause of "Witherspoon-excludables" serves the State's entirely proper interest in obtaining a single jury (as required by Arkansas law) that could impartially decide all of the issues at both the guilt and the penalty phases of respondent's trial. Moreover, both Witherspoon and Adams dealt With the special context of capital sentencing, where the range of jury discretion necessarily gave rise to far greater concern over the effects of an "imbalanced" jury. The case at bar, by contrast, deals not with capital sentencing, but with the jury's more traditional role of finding the facts and determining the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, where jury discretion is more channeled. Pp. 476 U. S. 177-183.
758 F.2d 226, reversed.
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the result. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 476 U. S. 184.