Witherspoon v. Illinois

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In Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a death penalty because too many jurors had been excused by the prosecution during voir dire for expressing some discomfort with capital punishment.

In defendant William Witherspoon's capital trial, the prosecution succeeded in removing a substantial number of jurors based on their general scruples against inflicting the death penalty. The State challenged, and the trial court excused for cause, 47 members of the 96-person venire, without significant examination of the individual prospective jurors. Id. at 514-515; see also Brief for Petitioner in Witherspoon v. Illinois, O. T. 1967, No. 1015, p. 4.

The Court 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," 391 U.S. at 521, and thus "woefully short of that impartiality to which the petitioner was entitled under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments," id. at 518. Because "[a] man who opposes the death penalty, no less than one who favors it, can make the discretionary judgment entrusted to him by the State," id. at 519, the Court held that "a sentence of death cannot be carried out if the jury that imposed or recommended it was chosen by excluding veniremen for cause simply because they voiced general objections to the death penalty," id. at 522. The Court also set forth, in dicta in a footnote, a strict standard for when an individual member of the venire may be removed for cause on account of his or her views on the death penalty. Id. at 522-523, n. 21.

This decision has since been limited to its unique facts, and newer standards have been established for voir dire in death penalty cases.