To the People

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or TO THE PEOPLE.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Jury of One's Peers, or One that Believes in the Death Penalty?

I have been called for jury duty seven times, and in six of them I was eliminated for disagreeing with the laws that were being executed. I was struck for disagreeing with the government that drug consumption and trade should be illegal and for being against capital punishment.

While US law entitles a defendant to a "jury of one's peers," what exactly does that mean in current jury selection practice? SCOTUS on Monday ruled that a juror in a death penalty case can be excluded for simply opposing the death penalty personally, even though that juror had no problems with deciding the case on its merits and gave no indications that he or she will be anything but a fair juror. From a Linda Greenhouse NYT article:
Writing for the four dissenters on Monday, Justice John Paul Stevens said the majority had erased an important distinction the Supreme Court had long drawn between “mere opposition to the death penalty” and “an inability to perform the legally required duties of a juror.” Justice Stevens said the court’s precedents made it clear that no matter what a juror’s personal opinion about capital punishment, that juror should not be dismissed in the absence of evidence of unwillingness or inability to follow the law.

The process of questioning potential jurors in a death penalty case, and weeding out those who hold such strong feelings for or against capital punishment that they would be unable to apply the law, is known as “death-qualifying” a jury. It is an exacting process that in this case took 11 days, and it is governed by a series of Supreme Court decisions going back to 1968, before the modern era in capital punishment. The concern in those cases has been that if prosecutors had too free a hand in eliminating those with doubts about the death penalty, the jury would be stacked against the defendant.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion acknowledged that history. “Capital defendants have the right to be sentenced by an impartial jury,” he said, adding that “the state may not infringe this right” by eliminating “those whose scruples against the death penalty would not substantially impair the performance of their duties.”
Most polls I could find show a slim majority of Americans favoring the death penalty, and 43% to 49% being opposed. The question arises as to whether death penalty defendants are judged by juries that have a general "law and order," anti-criminal bias that dooms the defendant from the start and that those juries are not of one's peers at all, but composed mainly of people who want to fry the defendant, any defendant.

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