Facts of the case
Witherspoon was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a jury in Illinois. An Illinois statute provides grounds for the dismissal of any juror with "conscientious scruples" against capital punishment. At Witherspoon's trial, the prosecution eliminated nearly half of the prospective jurors with qualms about capital punishment. The prosecution did not find out if most of the jurors dismissed would necessarily vote against capital punishment.
Witherspoon appealed, alleging that the dismissal of prospective jurors with qualms about capital punishment violated his Sixth Amendment right to an "impartial jury" and 14th Amendment right to due process. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court found that no constitutional violation took place.
Does a state statue that provides grounds for the dismissal of any juror with "conscientious scruples" against capital punishment violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of an "impartial jury" and the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process?
Yes. In an opinion delivered by Justice Potter Stewart, the Court held 6-3 that Witherspoon's death sentence was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that a jury composed after the dismissal of all who oppose the death sentence was biased in favor the death sentence; such a jury was not impartial and thus violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court held that while jurors who say they will not impose the death sentence can be dismissed, jurors who simply oppose the death sentence as a personal belief may not. Justice William Douglas, concurring, argued that it also unconstitutional to dismiss prospective jurors who say they will never impose the death sentence.
Justice Hugo Black, with whom Justices John Harlan and Byron White joined, dissented. Douglas argued that the Constitution allows the dismissal of all jurors who oppose the death penalty personally, because they will be necessarily biased against the death penalty. In a separate dissent, White argued that the Illinois legislature was allowed to exclude "those with doubts" about "one of the punishments among which the legislature sought to have them choose...."
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