Gray v. Mississippi

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In Gray v. Mississippi, 481 U.S. 648 (1987), the U.S. Supreme Court addressed a case involving a systematic exclusion of jurors during voir dire based on their opposition to the death penalty. The State had lodged for-cause or peremptory challenges against every juror who "expressed any degree of uncertainty in the ability to cast ... a vote" for the death penalty, id. at 652, and quickly exhausted all 12 of its peremptory challenges, id. at 653. The prosecution then challenged a juror who had expressed no opposition to the death penalty and had said many times that she could return a death sentence. The trial court denied the challenge. Id. at 654-655. Arguing that the trial court had erroneously denied certain earlier challenges for cause, and thus had forced the State to waste peremptory challenges, the prosecution sought to reopen those previous challenges. The trial court refused to do so, but removed the current juror, over objection from the defense. Id. at 655. On appeal all of the state judges agreed the juror could not be excused for cause under either the Witherspoon or the Witt standard, but the appellate court held it was appropriate, under the circumstances, to treat the challenge in question as a peremptory strike. 481 U.S. at 656-657.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the juror had been removed for cause and that she was not substantially impaired under the controlling Witt standard. 481 U.S. at 659. The error was not subject to harmlessness review, and thus the sentence could not stand. Ibid.

The U.S. Supreme Court later observed that Gray represents a rare case, however, because in the typical situation there will be a state-court finding of substantial impairment; in Gray, the state courts had found the opposite, which makes that precedent of limited significance to the instant case.