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United States v. Wilson

November 13, 2006

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RONELL WILSON, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

This court is currently conducting voir dire in a case in which the Government seeks the death penalty against Ronell Wilson ("Wilson"). Before the court are Wilson's motions to have Jurors 294, 305, and 337 excluded for cause and the Government's motion to have Jurors 275, and 346 excluded for cause. The factual background and much of the legal background applicable to these motions were set forth in this court's Orders dated October 20, October 23, November 5, and November 6, 2006.

For the reasons set forth below, Wilson's motions are GRANTED with respect to Juror 337 and DENIED with respect to Jurors 294 and 305 and the Government's motions are GRANTED. Jurors 294 and 305 are therefore qualified to serve and Jurors 275, 337, and 346 are excluded for cause.

I. Wilson's Motions

A. Juror 294

Wilson moved to have Juror 294 excluded for cause, arguing that she is not life qualified because she "was unable to give any reason for voting for a life-without-release penalty option." (Tr. at 2331.) That motion is denied.

The colloquy that best supports Wilson's position is the following: Q: What factors can you think of that you might want to consider in connection with the background of the individual or the circumstances of the case when deciding what the penalty should be?

A: Was this deliberately in cold blood? You know, did he know what he was doing? Who the persons were and [did the defendant] intentionally do what [he] did?

Q: The jury will have already decided that the person committed the crime intentionally.

A: Okay.

Q: So that has already been determined. Are there any factors about the background of the defendant or other circumstances that you can think of?

A: No.

Q: Will you consider all of the factors that the Court directs you to consider before you decide how you will vote at the penalty phase?

A: Yes. (Tr. at 2324-25.) Based on this exchange, Wilson argued that "when the court asked [this juror] whether she'd hear the background of the defendant and other circumstances she flat out said, 'No.'" (Id. at 2326.) That is not correct. What the juror in fact stated was that she could not, in the absence of legal instruction, think of any factors regarding the defendant's background that she would consider in the penalty phase of this case, if any.

Because this court was concerned that the juror might not be willing to consider the "factors in the defendant's background" that she is obligated to consider, see 18 U.S.C. § 3592(a)(8), I instructed and questioned her further:

Q: It is important that as member of the jury you be open to considering various factors about the background of the defendant and the circumstances of the case during the penalty phase, because the penalty choices are so serious. And the Court will direct you, instruct you, about this. If the Court instructs you as to certain factors that you must consider, will you consider all of those factors[?]

A: Yes.

Q: Is there anything that would make it uneasy for you to consider whatever the Court asks you to consider?

A: I don't think so. (Tr. at 2328.) I find based on this exchange that Juror 294 is able and willing to consider all factors that she must consider during the penalty phase of this case, if any, including factors in Wilson's background. The record is simply devoid of evidence to the contrary. Wilson's motion is therefore denied.

B. Juror 305

Wilson moved to have this juror excluded for cause on the ground that she is not life qualified. (Def. Challenge Juror 305 at 2-3.) That motion is denied.

Wilson relies primarily on this juror's answer to the question, "How would you be able to make the decision whether to impose one [penalty] or the other, do you think?" (Tr. at 2389.) She answered, "It would be hard to say to you without knowing what the circumstances were, without having the whole picture. At this point, I believe in the death penalty. This has nothing to do with what is going on. This is my belief. But between imposing one or the other, if that is what I was going to do, choosing between one and the other, I would go for the death penalty." (Id.) Based on this answer, Wilson characterizes Juror 305 as "a juror who would presume death to be the appropriate sentence for murder, or [would] require the defendant to shoulder the burden of proving that a life sentence is instead warranted." (Def. Challenge Juror 305 at 2.)

That characterization is unwarranted. This juror stated, "I would go for the death penalty" only after she was presented with a hypothetical situation in which the Government proved guilt and at least one aggravating factor and Wilson proved no mitigating factors. The court explained to this juror, "You can't get to the penalty phase unless you decide that the person is guilty of the intentional murder of two police officers." (Tr. at 2382.) The court also explained, "in this case, if the defendant is found guilty of intentionally murdering two police officers, the price can be life in prison without the possibility of release or the death penalty." (Id. at 2386.) As I explained after this juror was excused from the courtroom, "that is an extreme crime. And I think most people would say . . . if the death penalty is available, absent any other mitigating facts, I would support the death penalty." (Id. at 2395-96.)

A juror would be perfectly entitled to vote to impose the death penalty in this extreme case. Federal law provides that if the Government proves any aggravating factors, the jury "shall consider whether all the aggravating factor or factors found to exist sufficiently outweigh all the mitigating factor or factors found to exist to justify a sentence of death, or, in the absence of a mitigating factor, whether the aggravating factor or factors alone are sufficient to justify a sentence of death." 18 U.S.C. § 3593(e). In the extreme hypothetical case posed by this court, the Government proved murder and at least one aggravating factor (multiple killings, see 18 U.S.C. § 3592(c)(16)) and Wilson proved no mitigating factors. Under section 3593(e), therefore, a jury considering this hypothetical case would be permitted to vote to impose the death penalty.

In addition, this court finds that Juror 305 was sincere when she indicated, after making the statement relied upon by Wilson, that she could in fact vote for a sentence of life ...


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