The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Uttecht v. Brown on June 4, 2007 appears to enhance the state’s ability to remove potential jurors with doubts about the death penalty. But by expanding the class of people who cannot serve on capital juries, the decision may ultimately render the death penalty invalid as juries fail to represent the true diversity of the American public.

In a 5-4 decision overturning an opinion written by Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (an outspoken supporter of capital punishment), the Supreme Court held that the ruling of the trial judge excluding a juror who had expressed only doubts, but not uniform opposition, to imposing the death penalty, should be given deference and upheld. The juror from the state of Washington stated on six occasions during voir dire that he could follow the law on applying the death penalty. However, some of his other statements were equivocal and the judge excused him from jury service.

Justice Stevens, writing for the dissent, expressed dismay that such a juror was excluded because of his doubts about the death penalty:

“Millions of Americans oppose the death penalty. A cross
section of virtually every community in the country includes
citizens who firmly believe the death penalty is
unjust but who nevertheless are qualified to serve as
jurors in capital cases. An individual’s opinion that a life
sentence without the possibility of parole is the severest
sentence that should be imposed in all but the most heinous
cases does not even arguably ‘prevent or substantially
impair the performance of his duties as a juror in
accordance with his instructions and his oath.’”

Justice Stevens concluded that the majority had interpreted the law “horribly backward” and “appears to be under the impression that trial courts should be encouraging the inclusion of jurors who will impose the death penalty rather than only ensuring the exclusion of those who say that, in all circumstances, they cannot.”

According to an article in the New York Times citing experts in law and psychology, this decision by the Supreme Court “will make the panels (of jurors) whiter and more conviction prone.” The article cited DPIC’s recent poll showing that 39% of Americans believe they would be disqualified from serving on a capital jury because of their beliefs. The percentages are even higher among African Americans and other subgroups. An editorial in the Boston Globe, also citing DPIC’s poll, criticized the Court’s decision and said, “Juries, over time, are likely to become less and less representative of the communities from which they are drawn.”
(Uttecht v. Brown, No. 06-413, June 4, 2007; N.Y. Times, June 9, 2007, at A1; editorial, Boston Globe, June 10, 2007). See also DPIC’s report: A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.