Free Press v. Fair Trial: Supreme Court Decisions since 1807

By Douglas S. Campbell | Go to book overview

Hopt v. Utah

Frederick Hopt v. People of the Territory of Utah Docket No. 1887-1099 120 U.S. 430, 30 L.Ed 708, 7 S.Ct. 614 ( 1887) Submitted January 21, 1887. Decided March 7, 1887.


Background

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants a fair trial by an impartial jury; it does not guarantee trial by unopinioned jurors. A distinction can be drawn between jurors who are unconstitutionally prejudiced against a defendant and jurors who merely hold an opinion that the defendant is guilty. This distinction is built on the premise that actual prejudice against a defendant is too strong to be overcome by evidence presented in court, but a mere opinion of guilt can be so "lightly" held that jurors could overcome their opinions after hearing courtroom evidence.

Who draws these distinctions in criminal trials and on what basis they are drawn are two important questions raised by Hopt v. Utah. The Court says here the trial judge draws the distinctions on the basis of guidelines ill state criminal statutes.


Circumstances

Frederick Hopt was convicted four times (the last in September 1885) and first sentenced to death for the murder of John F. Turner on July 3, 1880. Three times the Court reversed his conviction; in this case he seeks to extend his record to four. Hopt bases his requests primarily on four points: prejudiced jurors, improper evidence, improper jury instructions given by the trial judge, and all improper reference to one of his former trials by the district attorney.

Hopt says four jurors were unconstitutionally prejudiced. When challenged for actual (as contrasted to implied) bias, three of the jurors were excused by the trial judge. The fourth, however, was ruled not to hold all actual bias and thus was deemed to be an impartial and competent juror.

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