283 U.S. 308 (1931), 683, Aldridge v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 683
Citation:283 U.S. 308, 51 S.Ct. 470, 75 L.Ed. 1054
Party Name:Aldridge v. United States
Case Date:April 20, 1931
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 308

283 U.S. 308 (1931)

51 S.Ct. 470, 75 L.Ed. 1054



United States

No. 683

United States Supreme Court

April 20, 1931

Argued March 16, 1931




1. A negro, about to be tried for the murder of a white man, is entitled to have the jurors asked on their voir dire whether they have any racial prejudice that would prevent a fair and impartial verdict. P. 311 et seq.

2. A request for such an inquiry at a trial in the District of Columbia (where prospective jurors are examined by the Court) held sufficient, although informal. P. 310.

47 F.2d 407 reversed.

Certiorari, 282 U.S. 836, to review a judgment affirming a sentence for murder.

Page 309

HUGHES, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was convicted, in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, of murder in the first degree, and was sentenced to death. The conviction was affirmed by the court of appeals. This Court granted a writ of certiorari, limited to the question raised by the exception to the ruling of the trial court on the examination on voir dire of prospective jurors.

The petitioner is a negro, and the deceased was a white man, a member of the police force of the District. The record shows the following proceedings on the examination of jurors on the voir dire:

The court

inquired if any of them knew the defendant, Alfred Scott Aldridge, or his counsel, or any of the witnesses whose names have been called. The court further inquired if any of the prospective jurors knew any of the facts in the case or if any of them ever remembered having read of it in the newspaper, or if they had any prejudice or bias against circumstantial evidence, or if any of the prospective jurors had any conscientious scruples against capital punishment. The court further inquired if any prospective juror had formed or exercised an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, and further inquired whether any prospective juror was acquainted with any member of the Metropolitan Police Force of the District of Columbia, or more particularly those attached to the third precinct.

Page 310

Whereupon, with the consent of the court, counsel for the parties hereto approached the bench and, in a whispered tone, out of the hearing of the prospective jurors, the following took place:

Mr. Reilly. At the last trial of this case, I understand there was one woman on the jury who was a southerner, and who said that the fact that the defendant was a negro and the deceased a white man perhaps somewhat influenced her. I don't like to ask that question in public, but --

The Court. I don't think that would be a proper question, any more than to ask whether they like an Irishman or a Scotchman.

Mr. Reilly. But it was brought to our attention so prominently. It is a racial question --

The Court. It was not this jury.

Mr. Reilly. No. But it was a racial question, and the question came up --

The Court. I don't think that is proper.

Mr. Reilly. Might I, out of an abundance of caution, note an exception.

The Court. Note an exception.

Counsel for the defendant requested the court to allow the record to show that the question relative to racial prejudice be propounded to each and every prospective juror, with the exception heretofore noted on behalf of the defendant.

In accordance with the existing practice, the questions to the prospective jurors were put by the court, and the court had a broad discretion as to the questions to be asked. The exercise of this discretion, and the restriction upon inquiries at the request of counsel, were subject to the essential demands of fairness. We find no reason to doubt the nature of the inquiry which the counsel for the accused desired. It was admitted at the bar of this Court that the members of the jury were white. In asking

Page 311

that the question relative to "racial prejudice" be put to the jurors, it is only reasonable to assume that counsel referred not to immaterial matters, but to such a prejudice as [51 S.Ct. 472] would disqualify a juror because precluding an impartial verdict. The reference to what counsel had heard as to the attitude of a juror on the previous trial, where the jury had disagreed, indicated the purpose of the question, which was clear enough to invite appropriate action by the court. If the court had permitted the question, it doubtless would have been properly qualified. But the court, interrupting counsel, disposed of the inquiry summarily. The court failed to ask any question which could be deemed to cover the subject. If the defendant was entitled to have the jurors asked whether they had any racial prejudice, by reason of the fact that the defendant was a negro and the deceased a white man, which would prevent their giving a fair and impartial verdict, we cannot properly disregard the court's refusal merely because of the form in which the inquiry was presented.

The propriety of such an inquiry has been generally recognized. In Pinder v. state, 27 Fla. 370, 8 So. 837, 838, the counsel for the accused sought to have the jurors asked on their voir dire:


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