Attorneys: Join Our Network

Juror Can Be Kept From Jury Just Because He Won’t Vote for Death Penalty

Cal Coburn Brown was tried for two brutal murders in California and Washington.

Although his crimes were horrific in nature, Brown’s appeal of his death sentence could be important to the legal system as a whole.Brown appealed the death sentence handed to him by a jury in Washington.

  • See Uttecht v. Brown, U.S. Supreme Ct. Case No. 06-413 (June 4, 2007).

In his appeal, Brown argues  that potential jurors had been dismissed simply because they said that they could not sentence him to death.

The United States Supreme Court had said, in 1968, that the systematic removal of potential jurors opposed to the death penalty could lead to a jury “uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die.” In the 1968 case, the trial court had removed 47 potential jurors from a pool of 96 people without any real questioning, simply because of their “general scruples against inflicting the death penalty.

Brown argued, in his appeal, that three potential jurors had been removed from his jury because they were not clear that they could impose the death penalty on him.

The Supreme Court disagrees with Brown.

The Court said four principles apply to disallowing a potential jury:

  1. A criminal defendant has the right to an impartial jury that has not been tilted in favor of capital punishment by selective removal of potential jurors;
  2. The State has a strong interest in having jurors who are able to apply capital punishment according to the law;
  3. To balance these interests, a juror who is substantially impaired in his or her ability to impose the death penalty under the law can be excused; but if the juror is not substantially impaired, removal is impermissible; and
  4. In determining whether the removal of a potential juror would meet the State’s interest without violating the defendant’s right, the trial court’s ruling must be upheld, unless the court has abused its role.

In other words … if a potential juror says he is generally against the death penalty, but could vote in favor of a death sentence under reasonable circumstances, he meets both the state’s right to jurors who can apply the law and the defendant’s right to an impartial jury.

Juror Z

In Brown’s case, he focused on a single juror,  who was referred to as  “Juror Z”  by the court.

Juror Z was kept off the jury at the prosecutor’s request. Brown’s lawyer did not object.

Juror Z was instructed as to the law and questioned by both lawyers and the judge. He appeared to misunderstand the law. Potential jurors had been informed that the only possible sentences for Brown were death and life without parole, meaning Brown could never be released from jail.

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.

Z was dismissed from the pool of jurors because he could not understand the law, not because he was biased either way. Brown’s case did, however, give the Court an opportunity to clarify its decisions regarding jurors and the death penalty.