Supreme Court Clarifies When Juror Opposed to Death Penalty Can be Removed from Jury Pool

The United States Supreme Court used an appeal in a Washington death penalty case to clarify its holdings on excluding jurors who disfavor capital punishment. Uttecht v. Brown, 551 U.S. 1, Case No. 06-413 (June 4, 2007).

Cal Coburn Brown had been tried for the robbery, rape, torture, and murder of a woman in Washington. He was found guilty of first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances and sentenced to death. Brown filed a writ of habeas corpus, claiming three jurors had been excluding because of their views on the death penalty. A Ninth Circuit Court upheld the sentence, but was overruled by the Court of Appeals.

Brown relied, in his appeal, on Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). The Court had held that the systematic removal of those in the venire opposed to the death penalty had led to a jury “uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die.” Witherspoon at 521. In Witherspoon, the judge had removed 47 of 96 potential jurors, without significant examination, based on their “general scruples against inflicting the death penalty.” Brown at 2. Brown’s appeal only questioned the removal of three jurors.

The Supreme Court used this case to clarify its holdings on juror exclusion. The Court declared four basic principles for exclusion of jurors in a death penalty case: (1) A criminal defendant has the right to “an impartial jury drawn from a venire that has not been tilted in favor of capital punishment by selective prosecutorial challenges for cause.” Witherspoon at 521; (2) The State has “a strong interest in having jurors who are able to apply capital punishment within the framework state law prescribes.” Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 416 (1985); (3) To balance these interests, “a juror who is substantially impaired in his or her ability to impose the death penalty under the state-law framework can be excused for cause; but if the juror is not substantially impaired, removal for cause is impermissible.” [emphasis added] Id. at 424; and (4) In determining whether the removal of a potential juror would vindicate the State’s interest without violating the defendant’s right, the trial court makes a judgment based in part on the demeanor of the juror, a judgment owed deference by reviewing courts. Id. at 424-434.

Brown focused on the exclusion of a single juror, Juror Z. The trial court had instructed the jury pool that the only possible sentences for Brown were death and life without parole. Nonetheless, Z repeatedly told the judge he was against the death penalty, but he could vote in favor of death if he thought the defendant could re-offend should he be released from jail. He was removed from the pool on the prosecution’s motion. Brown’s criminal defense attorney did not object.