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United States v. Wilson

October 20, 2006

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RONELL WILSON, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garaufis, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

The Government alleges that Ronell Wilson ("Wilson") murdered undercover New York Police Department Detectives Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin on March 10, 2003.*fn1 Based on these and other allegations, the Government charges Wilson with two counts of murder in aid of racketeering, two counts of robbery conspiracy, one count of attempted robbery, one count of carjacking, two counts of use of a firearm, and two counts of causing death through use of a firearm. (Second Superseding Indictment, Docket Entry No. 179.)

The Government intends to seek the death penalty against Wilson. Jury selection began on September 25, 2006 when approximate 600 prospective jurors received preliminary instructions from this court and filled out extensive questionnaires. This court is currently conducting voir dire of those jurors who were not excluded for cause by consent of the parties based upon the responses in their questionnaires.

Before the court are the Wilson's motions to have Jurors 3, 19, and 35 excluded for cause and the Government's motions to have Jurors 7, 31, and 34 excluded for cause. For the reasons set forth below, Wilson's motions are GRANTED with respect to Juror 35 and DENIED with respect to Jurors 3 and 19 and the Government's motions are GRANTED with respect to Juror 31 and DENIED with respect to Jurors 7 and 34. Jurors 7, 19, and 34 are deemed qualified and Jurors 31 and 35 are excluded for cause. Juror 3 will be brought back for additional voir dire, after which Wilson may renew his motion to have Juror 3 excluded for cause.

I. Legal Background

In order to serve on a jury in a death penalty case, a juror must be both "death qualified" and "life qualified." A juror is not death qualified if "the juror's views [against the death penalty] would 'prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'" Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424 (1985) (quoting Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38, 45 (1980)).

A juror is not life qualified if he would automatically impose a death sentence after a guilty verdict, without considering mitigating factors. Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719, 735-39 (1992).*fn2 As with death qualification, the test 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. Morgan at 732-33.

The Supreme Court has thoughtfully "decline[d] to require the judge to write out in a separate memorandum his specific findings on each juror excused," correctly noting that "[a] trial judge's job is difficult enough without senseless make-work." Witt, 469 U.S. at 430. I will nevertheless endeavor to explain my decisions to exclude (or not) in writing when I find that the moving party has offered a credible basis for its motion and issuing a written opinion will provide the parties meaningful guidance and facilitate efficient voir dire of similar jurors.

II. Wilson's Motions

A. Juror 3

Wilson moved to exclude Juror 3 for cause on the ground that she indicated on her questionnaire that "a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release is a more severe form of punishment than a sentence of death." (Answer to Question 68.) I will refer to this belief as "penalty inversion."

As I explained at sidebar, I am concerned that this juror's penalty inversion would cause her to consider evidence of mitigation as a reason to vote for rather than against a sentence of death. (Oct. 11, 2006 Tr. at 127.) This would be contrary to the applicable statutory scheme, which requires jurors determining whether to impose a sentence of death to consider "factors in the defendant's background, record, or character or any other circumstance of the offense that mitigate against imposition of the death sentence." 18 U.S.C. § 3592(a)(8) (emphasis added).

After reviewing the record, I remain concerned that Juror 3 might give unlawful effect to mitigation evidence but I am not convinced that she would do so. The defense correctly notes that under Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983), "a jury's decision to impose death" should be set aside if a juror "attaches the 'aggravating' label to . . . conduct that actually should militate in favor of a lesser penalty[.]" Zant at 885. Although this juror's penalty inversion suggests that she might attach the "aggravating" label to mitigating factors, it may also be the case that she was merely trying to explain that she would personally prefer to receive the death penalty rather than life imprisonment were she ever convicted of a capital crime. If that is what she intended, then I am not convinced that she would consider mitigation evidence presented by Wilson as a basis for sentencing him to death rather than life.

Because it is not clear that this juror would properly consider mitigation evidence in determining whether to sentence Wilson to death, I will call her back for additional voir dire. I encourage the parties to submit proposed questions that will help me ...


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