Life Qualification, Automatic Death Penalty Voter Status, and Juror Decision Making in Capital Cases*

Article excerpt

Voir dire in capital cases requires judges to determine whether prospective jurors would be fair and impartial in the determination of guilt, as well as whether they are willing to consider voting for all available sentencing options should the jury find the defendant guilty. This article looks at the consistency between responses to a general life-qualification question and descriptions of sentencing decisions among former capital jurors. The results suggest that although some jurors are aware and capable of articulating that they would always vote for death upon conviction, others are not. Suggestions for making voir dire more accurate in detecting who would automatically for death upon conviction are offered.

Jury selection in capital cases poses unique challenges for judges, attorneys, and jurors alike. For judges, there are the inevitable questions of whether to allow juror questionnaires, to grant a change of venue, and to allow individualized sequestered voir dire, as well as how much time to allow for voir dire, and especially how much latitude to grant in the questioning of prospective jurors. More than any other issue, perhaps, rhe question for judges becomes whether to grant a challenge for cause based on a failure to meet the qualification standards required of capital jurors.

Attorneys are faced with their own set of challenges in capital voir dire, most of which revolve around how to gain enough information to decide how to proceed with a prospective juror. Ultimately, their task becomes whether to challenge a prospective juror for cause, to exercise a peremptory challenge, or to accept the individual as qualified to serve as a juror on a capital case.

While the tasks associated with capital voir dire are at least somewhat familiar to judges and attorneys, the task facing prospective jurors is not; most people likely have no idea what the legal requirements are for jurors to serve on a capital case. Thus, an early stage of voir dire is often spent explaining to prospective jurors what the law is, followed by a series of questions designed to determine whether the person is qualified to serve as a capital juror within the context of that law. The structural dynamics of this procedure produce an environment that is less than conducive for prospective jurors to speak openly and honestly about their views on the death penalty and how those may influence their qualifications to serve (Haney, 2005). For example, few people will look at a judge in court and announce their intention to disregard an instruction by that judge (Blume, Johnson, and Threlkeld, 2001).

In this article, we look to actual capital jurors' descriptions of their sentencing decision making for a glimpse into whether there is any apparent pattern of inconsistency between those descriptions and their qualification status. In particular, do jurors describe their decision making in a way that suggests a pattern of inconsistency in need of greater attention during voir dire? Thus, this is a study designed to determine whether there are ways to improve the conditions of voir dire so as to increase rhe likelihood that judges and attorneys alike receive the necessary information to decide who is best qualified to serve as a capital juror.


The current standard used to determine whether prospective jurors are qualified to serve as capital jurors was established in Wainwright v. Witt (1985) and clarified in Morgan v. Illinois (1992). In an effort to ensure that only impartial individuals are seated, the majority opinion in Witt established that:

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 view would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and oath" (at 424, quoting Adams v. Texas, 1980).

This standard has been criticized for being ambiguous and not offering specific criteria that can be applied to determine the eligibility of venirepersons (Dillehay and Sandys, 1996; Haney, Hurtado, and Vega, 1994; Thompson, 1989). …