Case Brief of Witherspoon v. Illinois

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

This lesson will explain the Supreme Court case of Witherspoon v. Illinois (1968), which set a precedent for jury selection in cases involving the death penalty.

Background

Do you support the death penalty as a form of punishment for the most serious crimes, like murder? Could you set aside your feelings about the death penalty if you were asked to serve on a jury? Should opposition to the death penalty be a reason why you could be dismissed from jury service? These very difficult questions form the backbone of the Supreme Court case of Witherspoon v. Illinois, which considered whether a potential juror's opposition to the death penalty should be an automatic cause for dismissal from the jury pool.

In a criminal or civil trial, the jury pool is assembled from citizens of that geographic area (city, state, county, federal district, and so on). The process of voir dire is the formal step in these trials when potential jurors are questioned by lawyers representing both sides of the case. Based on their questioning, attorneys are allowed to dismiss certain potential jurors because they are biased against their client, the victim, or have personal knowledge of the case in some way.

Facts of the Case

In Illinois, there was a statute which allowed potential jurors to be dismissed from jury service if they claimed to have ''conscientious scruples against capital punishment,'' or objections to handing down a death sentence. In 1968, Witherspoon was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Almost half of the potential jury pool were dismissed for ''conscientious scruples.'' Witherspoon's attorneys argued that he did not get a fair and objective jury because all of those who would have likely sided with him and spared his life had been exempted from service. They made the case that this statute should be unconstitutional. They argued that the Sixth Amendment, which provides defendants with the protection of an impartial jury, was violated in this case. The attorney's argued that the jury on Weatherspoon's case was comprised of people who were more likely to find him guilty and may even want to see him punished with the death penalty.

Constitutional Question

Did the Illinois statute, allowing for potential jurors to be removed if they had an objection to the death penalty, violate the Sixth Amendment?

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