500 U.S. 415 (1991), 90-5193, Mu'Min v. Virginia

Docket Nº:No. 90-5193
Citation:500 U.S. 415, 111 S.Ct. 1899, 114 L.Ed.2d 493, 59 U.S.L.W. 4519
Party Name:Mu'Min v. Virginia
Case Date:May 30, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 415

500 U.S. 415 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 1899, 114 L.Ed.2d 493, 59 U.S.L.W. 4519

Mu'Min

v.

Virginia

No. 90-5193

United States Supreme Court

May 30, 1991

Argued Feb. 20, 1991

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF VIRGINIA

Syllabus

Petitioner Mu'Min, a Virginia inmate serving time for first-degree murder, committed another murder while out of prison on work detail. The case engendered substantial publicity in the local news media. The trial judge denied his motion for individual voir dire and refused to ask any of his proposed questions relating to the content of news items that potential jurors might have seen or read. Initially, the judge questioned the prospective jurors as a group, asking four separate questions about the effect on them of pretrial publicity or information about the case obtained by other means. One juror who admitted to having formed a belief as to Mu'Min's guilt was excused for cause. The judge then conducted further voir dire in panels of four, and each time a juror indicated that he had acquired knowledge about the case from outside sources, he was asked whether he had formed an opinion. One juror who equivocated as to her impartiality was excused by the judge sua sponte, and several others were excused for various reasons. Although 8 of the 12 eventually [111 S.Ct. 1900] sworn admitted that they had read or heard something about the case, none indicated that they had formed an opinion based on the outside information, or would be biased in any way. The jury found Mu'Min guilty of capital murder, and the judge sentenced him to death. The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed, finding that, while a criminal defendant may properly ask on voir dire whether a juror has previously acquired any information about the case, the defendant does not have a constitutional right to explore the content of the acquired information, but is only entitled to know whether the juror can remain impartial in light of the previously obtained information.

Held: The trial judge's refusal to question prospective jurors about the specific contents of the news reports to which they had been exposed did not violate Mu'Min's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury or his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 422-432.

(a) This Court's cases have stressed the wide discretion granted to trial courts in conducting voir dire in the area of pretrial publicity and in other areas that might tend to show juror bias. For example, in holding that a trial court's voir dire questioning must "cover the subject" of possible juror racial bias, Aldridge v. United States, 283 U.S. 308, 311, the Court was careful not to specify the particulars by which this could be done. Pp. 422-424.

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(b) Mu'Min's assertion that voir dire must do more than merely "cover the subject" of pretrial publicity is not persuasive. Although precise inquiries about the contents of any news reports that a potential juror has read might reveal a sense of the juror's general outlook on life that would be of some use in exercising peremptory challenges, this benefit cannot be a basis for making "content" questions about pretrial publicity a constitutional requirement, since peremptory challenges are not required by the Constitution. Ross v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 81, 88. Moreover, although content questions might be helpful in assessing whether a juror is impartial, such questions are constitutionally compelled only if the trial court's failure to ask them renders the defendant's trial fundamentally unfair. See Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794, 799. Furthermore, contrary to the situation in Aldridge, supra, 283 U.S. at 311-313, there is no judicial consensus, or even weight of authority, favoring Mu'Min's position. Even the Federal Courts of Appeals that have required content inquiries have not expressly done so on constitutional grounds. Pp. 424-427.

(c) Mu'Min misplaces his reliance on Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, in which the Court held that pretrial publicity in connection with a capital trial had so tainted the particular jury pool that the defendant was entitled as a matter of federal constitutional law to a change of venue. That case did not deal with any constitutional requirement of voir dire inquiry, and it is not clear from the Court's opinion how extensive an inquiry the trial court made. Moreover, the pretrial publicity here, although substantial, was not nearly as damaging or extensive as that found to exist in Irvin. While adverse pretrial publicity can create such a presumption of prejudice that the jurors' claims that they can be impartial should not be believed, Patton v. Yount, 467 U.S. 1025, 1031, this is not such a case. Pp. 427-430.

(d) Mu'Min also misplaces his reliance on the American Bar Association's Standards For Criminal Justice, which require interrogation of each juror individually with respect to "what [he] has read and heard about the case," "[i]f there is a substantial possibility that [he] will be ineligible to serve because of exposure to potentially prejudicial material." These standards leave to the trial court the initial determination of whether there is such a substantial possibility; are based on a substantive for-cause eligibility standard that [111 S.Ct. 1901] is stricter than the impartiality standard required by the Constitution, see Patton, supra, 467 U.S. at 1035; and have not commended themselves to a majority of the courts that have considered the question. Pp. 430-431.

(e) The two-part voir dire examination conducted by the trial court in this case was by no means perfunctory, and adequately covered the subject of possible bias by pretrial publicity. P. 431-432.

239 Va. 433, 389 S.E.2d 886, affirmed.

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REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, 432. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in all but Part IV of which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 433. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 448.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Dawud Majid Mu'Min was convicted of murdering a woman in Prince William County, Virginia, while out of prison on work detail, and was sentenced to death. The case engendered substantial publicity, and 8 of the 12 venirepersons eventually sworn as jurors answered on voir dire that they had read or heard something about the case. None of those who had read or heard something indicated that they had formed an opinion based on the outside information, or that it would affect their ability to determine petitioner's guilt or innocence based solely on the evidence presented at trial. Petitioner contends, however, that his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury and his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated because the trial judge refused to question further prospective jurors about the specific contents of the news reports to which they had been exposed. We reject petitioner's submission.

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Mu'Min was an inmate at the Virginia Department of Corrections' Haymarket Correctional Unit serving a 48-year sentence for a 1973 first-degree murder conviction. On September 22, 1988, he was transferred to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Headquarters in Prince William County and assigned to a work detail supervised by a VDOT employee. During his lunch break, he escaped over a perimeter fence at the VDOT facility and made his way to a nearby shopping center. Using a sharp instrument that he had fashioned at the VDOT shop, Mu'Min murdered and robbed Gladys Nopwasky, the owner of a retail carpet and flooring store. Mu'Min then returned to his prison work crew at the VDOT, discarding his bloodied shirt and the murder weapon near the highway.

About three months before trial, petitioner submitted to the trial court, in support of a motion for a change of venue, 47 newspaper articles relating to the murder.[1] One or more of the articles discussed details of the murder and investigation, and included information about petitioner's prior criminal record (App. 963-969), the fact that he had been rejected for parole six times (id., at 923, 942), accounts of alleged prison infractions (id. at 921, 931, 942), details about the prior murder for which Mu'Min was serving his sentence at the time of this murder (id. at 948, 951), a comment that the death penalty had not been available when Mu'Min was convicted for this earlier murder (id. at 948), and indications that Mu'Min had confessed to killing Gladys Nopwasky (id. at 975). Several articles focused on the alleged laxity in the supervision [111 S.Ct. 1902] of work gangs (id. at 922-924, 930-931), and argued for reform of the prison work-crew system (id. at 974). The trial judge deferred ruling on the venue motion until after

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making an attempt to seat a jury (Joint Appendix 8-15 (J.A.)).

Shortly before the date set for trial, petitioner submitted to the trial judge 64 proposed voir dire questions[2] (id. at 2-7) and filed a motion for individual voir dire. The trial court denied the motion for individual voir dire; it ruled that voir dire would begin with collective questioning of the venire, but the venire would be broken down into panels of four, if necessary, to deal with issues of publicity (id. at 16-17). The trial court also refused to ask any of petitioner's proposed questions relating to the content of news items that potential jurors might have read or seen.

Twenty-six prospective jurors were summoned into the courtroom and questioned as a group (id. at 42-66). When asked by the judge whether anyone had acquired any information about the alleged offense or the accused...

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