Witherspoon v. Illinois
In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed many issues surrounding the constitutionality of CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. In Wither-spoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 88 S. Ct. 1770, 20 L. Ed. 776 (1968), the Court examined the practice of authorizing prosecutors in death penalty cases to exclude from the jury persons who were opposed to capital punishment. The Court held that states could not exclude persons who had "conscientious scruples" or who were generally against capital punishment.
In 1960 an Illinois jury convicted William C. Witherspoon of murder and sentenced him to death. Witherspoon challenged the constitutionality of both his conviction and his death sentence. His appeal was based on an Illinois statute that provided that in murder trials a prospective juror could be challenged for cause and removed from the jury panel if, upon examination, the prospective juror declared that she was opposed to, or had conscientious scruples against, capital punishment. Using this statute, the prosecution in Witherspoon's case removed almost half the prospective jurors during jury selection.
Witherspoon argued that the law unfairly deprived him of his right to a fair trial under the SIXTH and FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS because the state had allowed to be seated only jurors who were in favor of capital punishment. After
the Illinois courts rejected his appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether a state could constitutionally inflict the death penalty pursuant to the verdict of a jury composed in this manner.
The Court reversed the state courts and agreed that the Illinois statute was unconstitutional. Justice POTTER STEWART, in his majority opinion, held that it cannot be assumed that a juror who describes himself as having conscientious principles against imposition of the death penalty or against its imposition in an appropriate case thereby states that he would never vote in favor of the death penalty or would not consider doing so in the case at hand. Unless the juror asserts unequivocally that he would automatically vote against the death penalty, irrespective of what the trial might reveal, it cannot be assumed that this is the juror's position.
Stewart said that the determination of whether to sentence a defendant to life imprisonment or capital punishment cannot be made by a panel intentionally structured to inflict the death penalty. In such a situation, the state crosses the boundary of neutrality. The Court declared that the maximum that can be required of jurors in a capital case is that they be amenable to considering all penalties provided by state law and not be irrevocably committed before trial to voting against the death penalty irrespective of the facts and circumstances that the proceeding might disclose.
The Witherspoon decision forced states to rewrite their laws concerning jury selection in capital punishment cases. A general opposition to capital punishment is an insufficient ground for challenging a prospective juror. The prosecutor must probe to determine whether the person's beliefs would deter her from reaching an impartial verdict as to the defendant's guilt, or whether the person would never vote to impose the death penalty. If a person's views on capital punishment would affect her determination of the case, the person may properly be removed from the jury.