Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968) and Death Qualified Juries

Published 06 Mar 2017

Valentine’s day of 1978 set the stage for the case of Ardia McCree, a convicted felon for a capital offense. When he killed Evelyn Boughton, owner of the gift shop at Arkansas, a hyper-extended, controversial debate on Death Qualified Juries began to take its course in our legal system. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his opinion on the Lockhart v. McCree, 476 U.S. 162 (1986) case, addressed the question that was anchored on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). That question involved the Constitutional prohibition (Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments) on removal for cause of prospective jurors who strongly opposed death penalty. Opposition, meaning, a point where these jurors might prevent or “substantially impair the performance of their duties as jurors” during the phase of the trial for meting out the sentence. Justice Rehnquist, speaking for the Court, answered the question in the negative.

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I agree with the “serious evidentiary flaws” in the way McCree tried to argue his case. For example, he introduced 15 social science studies into evidence to support his allegedly Constitutional claims. However, out of the 15 studies, only 6 measured the potential effects on the “guilt-innocence determination of the removal from the jury of ‘Witherspoon-excludables'(Witherspoon v. Illinois, 1968, p. 169).” Of course, McCree cannot cite those inconclusive and rather dated studies as a basis for saying that the juries have become “conviction-prone” compared to “non-death qualified juries.”

Aside from the problematic social studies, another point is on the legal concept of “distinct groups” as part of fair-cross section requirements in the representation of a jury. The Court, in the Lockhart case cited jurisprudence to identify the purposes of this grouping. These include, guarding against arbitrary power and “preserving public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system (p. 175).” Since the Death Qualification is not part of these distinct groups, I don’t think there would be merit in McCree’s arguments at this point.


Lockhart v. McCree No. 84-1865. (1986). 476 U.S. 162. Online. Retrieved December 7, 2007, from <http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0476_0162_ZO.html>

Witherspoon v. Illinois. (1968). 391 U.S. 510. Online. Retrieved December 7, 2007.

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