Witherspoon v. Illinois

Witherspoon v. Illinois

391 U.S. 510 (1968)

Facts and Procedural History:

Petitioner was convicted in Illinois for murder and sentenced to death. At the time of his trial, an Illinois statute allowed the state to challenge any juror who expressed conscientious scruples against capital punishment. The prosecution has been given wide discretion to dismiss jurors and as a result eliminated nearly half the venire of prospective jurors. From those who remained, jurors were chosen who ultimately found the petitioner guilty and sentenced him to death.

Issues Presented to the Court:

Does the Constitution permit a state to execute a man pursuant to a verdict of a jury so constituted that they would more likely find the petitioner guilty and sentence him to death?

Outcome of the Case:

The court held that it had not been shown that this jury was biased with respect to the petitioner's guilt. But in its decision, whether his sentence should be imprisonment or death, the jury “fell woefully short of that impartiality to which the petitioner was entitled under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments”. When the State had excluded not only those prospective jurors who stated in advance of trial that they would not even consider returning a verdict of death, but also all who expressed conscientious or religious scruples against capital punishment and all who opposed it in principle, the State crossed the line of neutrality. As a result, the State produced a jury uncommonly willing to condemn a man to die. Thus, to execute this death sentence would deprive petitioner of his life without due process of law.