Wainwright v. Witt, No. 83-1427

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtREHNQUIST
Citation105 S.Ct. 844,469 U.S. 412,83 L.Ed.2d 841
PartiesLouie L. WAINWRIGHT, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, Petitioner v. Johnny Paul WITT
Docket NumberNo. 83-1427
Decision Date21 January 1985

469 U.S. 412
105 S.Ct. 844
83 L.Ed.2d 841
Louie L. WAINWRIGHT, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, Petitioner

v.

Johnny Paul WITT.

No. 83-1427.
Argued Oct. 2, 1984.
Decided Jan. 21, 1985.
Syllabus

Respondent was tried by a jury in a Florida state court and convicted of first-degree murder. In accordance with the jury's recommendation, he was sentenced to death. On appeal, respondent claimed that several prospective jurors had been improperly excluded for cause because of their opposition to capital punishment, in violation of the decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776, but the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. After unsuccessfully seeking postconviction review in the state courts, respondent filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. That court denied the petition. The Court of Appeals reversed and granted the writ, holding that, on the basis of the voir dire questioning by the prosecutor, one of the prospective jurors was improperly excused for cause under Witherspoon. The court drew the standard for determining when a juror may properly be excluded from Witherspoon, supra, at 522, n. 21, 88 S.Ct., at 1777, n. 21, which states that jurors may be excluded for cause if they make it "unmistakably clear" that they would "automatically" vote against capital punishment without regard to the evidence or that their attitude toward the death penalty would prevent them from making an impartial decision as to the defendant's "guilt."

Held:

1. The proper standard for determining when a prospective juror may be excluded for cause because of his views on capital punishment is whether the juror's views would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38, 45, 100 S.Ct. 2521, 2526, 65 L.Ed.2d 581. In addition to dispensing with Witherspoon § reference to "automatic" decisionmaking, this standard does not require that a juror's bias be proved with "unmistakable clarity." Here, given this standard, the Court of Appeals at a minimum erred in focusing unduly on the lack of clarity of the questioning of the prospective juror, and in focusing on whether her answers indicated that she would "automatically" vote against the death penalty. Pp. 418-426.

2. On a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the question of challenge of a prospective juror for bias is a "factual issue"

Page 413

subject to § 2254(d), which requires a federal reviewing court to accord any findings of the state courts on "factual issues" a "presumption of correctness." Patton v. Yount, 467 U.S. 1025, 104 S.Ct. 2885, 81 L.Ed.2d 847. This rule applies to a trial court's determination, such as the one made in this case, that a prospective capital sentencing juror was properly excluded for cause. Pp. 426-430.

3. Under the facts of this case, the prospective juror in question was properly excused for cause. There were adequate "written indicia" of the trial judge's factual finding to satisfy § 2254(d). The transcript of voir dire shows that the prospective juror was questioned in the presence of both counsel and the trial judge, that at the end of the colloquy between the prosecutor and the juror the prosecutor challenged for cause, and that the challenge was sustained. Nothing more was required. The judge was not required to write a specific finding or announce for the record his conclusion that, or his reasons why, the prospective juror was biased. The judge's finding is therefore "presumed correct" absent anything in the record showing one of the reasons enumerated in the statute for avoiding the presumption. The question under the statute is whether the trial court's findings are fairly supported by the record, and here there is ample support for the trial judge's finding that the prospective juror's views would have prevented or substantially impaired the performance of her duties as a juror. Pp. 430-435.

714 F.2d 1069 (CA11 1983) and 723 F.2d 769, (CA11 1984) reversed.

Robert J. Landry, New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

William C. McLain, Fort Myers, Fla., for respondent.

Page 414

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to examine once again the procedures for selection of jurors in criminal trials involving the possible imposition of capital punishment, see Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 20 L.Ed.2d 776 (1968), and to consider standards for federal courts reviewing those procedures upon petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

I

Respondent Johnny Paul Witt was convicted of first-degree murder in Florida and sentenced to death. The murder was committed while respondent and a friend were bow-and-arrow hunting. The evidence at trial showed that the two had spoken together on other occasions about killing a human, and had even stalked persons as they would stalk animal prey. On the day in question, respondent, then aged 30, and his younger accomplice were hunting in a wooded area near a trail often used by children. When the victim, an 11-year-old boy, rode by on his bicycle, respondent's accomplice hit the child on the head with a star bit from a drill. Respondent and his accomplice then gagged the stunned victim, placed him in the trunk of respondent's car, and drove to a deserted grove. Upon opening the trunk, the conspirators discovered that the victim had died by suffocating from the gag. The two committed various sexual and violent acts on the body, then dug a grave and buried it.

Page 415

Respondent was tried by a jury and convicted of first-degree murder. In accordance with the recommendation of the jury, the trial judge sentenced him to death. On appeal to the Florida Supreme Court respondent raised a number of claims, one of which was that several prospective jurors had been improperly excluded for cause because of their opposition to capital punishment, in violation of this Court's decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois, supra. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence, and this Court denied certiorari. Witt v. State, 342 So.2d 497, cert. denied, 434 U.S. 935, 98 S.Ct. 422, 54 L.Ed.2d 294 (1977). After unsuccessfully petitioning for postconviction review in the state courts, see Witt v. State, 387 So.2d 922 (Fla.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1067, 101 S.Ct. 796, 66 L.Ed.2d 612 (1980), respondent filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, raising numerous constitutional claims. That court denied the petition. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed and granted the writ. 714 F.2d 1069 (CA11 1983), modified, 723 F.2d 769 (CA11 1984).

The only claim the Eleventh Circuit found meritorious was respondent's Witherspoon claim. The court found the following exchange during voir dire, between the prosecutor and veniremember Colby, to be insufficient to justify Colby's excusal for cause: 1

"[Q. Prosecutor:] Now, let me ask you a question, ma'am. Do you have any religious beliefs or personal beliefs against the death penalty?

"[A. Colby:] I am afraid personally but not—

"[Q]: Speak up, please.

Page 416

"[A]: I am afraid of being a little personal, but definitely not religious.

"[Q]: Now, would that interfere with you sitting as a juror in this case?

"[A]: I am afraid it would.

"[Q]: You are afraid it would?

"[A]: Yes, Sir.

"[Q]: Would it interfere with judging the guilt or innocence of the Defendant in this case?

"[A]: I think so.

"[Q]: You think it would.

"[A]: I think it would.

"[Q]: Your honor, I would move for cause at this point.

"THE COURT: All right. Step down." Tr. 266-267.

Defense counsel did not object or attempt rehabilitation.

In Witherspoon, this Court held that the State infringes a capital defendant's right under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to trial by an impartial jury when it excuses for cause all those members of the venire who express conscientious objections to capital punishment. As the Court of Appeals in this case noted, however, the Witherspoon Court also recognized the State's legitimate interest in excluding those jurors whose opposition to capital punishment would not allow them to view the proceedings impartially, and who therefore might frustrate administration of a State's death penalty scheme. The Court of Appeals drew the standard for determining when a juror may properly be excluded from Witherspoon § footnote 21; jurors may be excluded for cause if they make it

"unmistakably clear (1) that they would automatically vote against the imposition of capital punishment without regard to any evidence that might be developed at the trial of the case before them, or (2) that their attitude toward the death penalty would prevent them from making an impartial decision as to the defendant's guilt." 391 U.S., at 522, n. 21, 88 S.Ct., at 1777, n. 21 (emphasis in original).

Page 417

The Court of Appeals construed our decisions to require that jurors expressing objections to the death penalty be given "great leeway" before their expressions justify dismissal for cause. "A prospective juror may even concede that his or her feelings about the death penalty would possibly color an objective determination of the facts of a case without admitting of the necessary partiality to justify excusal." 714 F.2d, at 1076-1080. The court concluded that the colloquy with venireman Colby reprinted above did not satisfy the Witherspoon standard. Colby's limited expressions of "feelings and thoughts" failed to "unequivocally state that she would automatically be unable to apply the death penalty . . . ." Id., at 1082. In part, the court found the ambiguity in the record was caused by the lack of clarity of the prosecutor's questions. The prosecutor's question...

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